Normality restored – sort of
Normality restored – sort of
So today we had our answer. To that big question ringing in everyone’s ears – not least of those down Brackley way – since all that went on in Singapore last weekend. And yesterday’s wash out had given us no clues either way in advance.
Had F1 really stepped beyond the looking glass? Had the Mercedes suddenly lost whatever it was about them? No. Today in Suzuka normal service was resumed and the Mercs were well on top in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix. Their strange no-show in Singapore was confirmed as just that. Granted there were plenty of reasons to think it would be a mere blip, but that the team at no point really understood what went wrong at the Marina Bay track meant that the relief emanating from its garage this time was tangible.
In a week that we lost the baseball legend Yogi Berra what we got in Suzuka’s qualifying was, to take one of his famous Yogi-isms: ‘déjà vu all over again’.
Or perhaps he didn’t say that, given he once insisted: ‘I never said some of the things I said’. Then again, perhaps he didn’t say that either.
But I digress. As outlined the Mercs were back today, but in a slight departure from that norm of the two it was Nico Rosberg in fact who claimed pole position. There wasn’t a great deal between the pair in silver throughout, and in the first runs of Q3 Rosberg got under Lewis Hamilton’s time by a scant 0.076 secs. But there was clearly more in the tank from Lewis as made a couple of conspicuous errors during his effort plus we know by now that he has a knack of somehow beating Nico when it really counts.
Yet we never got to see if Lewis would be able to do just that again as Daniil Kvyat had a rather violent smash on his final run just before the hairpin (his own error, as he conceded) and the resultant red flag meant that the order as it was would be that used for tomorrow’s starting grid.
Nico, as you’d expect, was rather pleased with it all. ‘It’s a good feeling…it’s been a great day’ he said.
‘Because it’s been a bit difficult day as we had no practice yesterday..and then I went out in qualifying and the car was awesome. So I was really happy about that because with a great car, like it’s on rails, here in Suzuka it’s a pleasure’.
And Nico personally looked about as on point as his W06. As for the red flag intervention and his team mate’s untapped potential, well Nico reckoned that he had more to come too: ‘It was going well, I think I had some more in me for sure’. Today wasn’t just about luck for him.
Lewis, while himself visibly relaxed, rued the red flag point somewhat. ‘I did, I did [have more to come]’ he said, ‘so I was pretty excited about the next lap. Nonetheless Nico did a great job’.
‘I was almost two tenths up by turn seven so I was getting excited, then the red flag came out…’.
But in F1 there is always a benefit from hitting your home run off the first pitch, and Rosberg – and Hamilton for that matter – found that today.
In a large sense though Lewis will be relieved by today’s events too. The main take-out we’ve mentioned and in a certain sense his third world title this year became more likely today as a result. Still for all that his points lead remains healthy following last weekend he won’t welcome Nico taking another nibble at it tomorrow.
As for Nico, well he did promise before Singapore that he’d come out swinging for the season’s remainder given he now has nothing to lose. Singapore and all that meant if it happened at all there it was well-concealed, but pole in Suzuka is a pretty good way of making good on your words.
As if to emphasise that the usual way of things, and déjà vu (all over again), around the place the top three today was spookily redolent of that in last year’s Japanese qualifying session. Rosberg pipping Hamilton for pole, and the excellent Valtteri Bottas in the Williams next up, about half a second shy.
Indeed Bottas this time got even closer than he did then, being just 0.44 seconds off Rosberg’s best and he was clearly at the head of the chasing Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull pack throughout.
Sebastian Vettel in his Ferrari experienced the other side of the post-Singapore swing and was rarely a factor this time, and that he got even fourth on the grid represented an extreme salvage operation. He’s another who tends to get it done when it matters. Seb explained after: ‘Didn’t get going…and in the end the car seemed to come alive’.
Indeed his team mate Kimi Raikkonen looked the quicker for the most part but he starts sixth, one of many to rue the late red flag. ‘We went faster in Q2 [than in Q3]. I had one bit average tyre set in the first try in Q3, and didn’t have a second try…’. Felipe Massa starts between them.
All this though, combined with that the end of Q1 was similarly loped off by a yellow flag caused by Max Verstappen parking his stricken Toro Rosso on track (something he was later penalised three grid places for), may renew a debate about the disruption of red and yellow flags in qualifying sessions and what should and can be done about those who cause them. In Indycars for example they are much tougher with those who so disrupt things even if it’s inadvertent, taking times off them and the like.
But whatever is the case it has given us an intriguing grid for tomorrow. Theoretically the race should all belong to Mercedes, plus overtaking is not at all easy here so as Nico noted ‘it’s a big advantage to start on pole here; good start is important of course’. But that second part may not be a given, what with Mercedes’s starts not always being brilliant in recent times. The Merc pilots may also be wary of the usually swift-off-the-line Seb on row two – indeed in 2013 Romain Grosjean led into turn one from the very same fourth on the grid which at a stroke gave us a very different race from the one anticipated.
Nico noted too that undercuts here are ‘not impossible but very very difficult’ and Lewis agreed, saying you can’t ordinarily get within two seconds of the car ahead here, or within range for an undercut in other words. ‘It’s going to be hard’ he said on his prospects of getting ahead.
Jenson Button also complained today of tyre overheating problems, losing them grip, and predicted that this would effect many. Indeed Vettel too during the session spoke of losing grip in his front tyres even in his qualifying runs and Rosberg also said tyre management will be a big factor tomorrow. This ‘thermal degradation’ is a modern bugbear at Suzuka given the track’s long corners and many changes of direction. Plus we can add that Japanese perennial of the weather, that showers may be around. Lewis mentioned that Nico’s studied his lines from the wet race last year…
Therefore even this time it seems apt to take our last word from Berra and another of his celebrated isms: ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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