So reports of Mercedes’s F1 death were greatly exaggerated.
Yes to an extent a bounce back was expected. Suzuka, particularly its full noise final part, would suit it. The temperatures – unlike the previous two rounds – were cool, and this the Merc loves. But given recent flailing, much of it unanticipated, no one was taking anything for granted.
From an early part of the qualifying hour it looked a familiar story though – Lewis Hamilton and his Merc well on top. He converted his advantage too, taking a pole as balmy as is possible in such circumstances, by a third of a second. It is, astonishingly at this drivers’ track, his first ever pole here of his 71.
‘I never ever really got a great balance in the past so I never did great in qualifying,’ Lewis noted afterwards.
‘So to finally get the balance behind me with the great work of my engineers and the great timing from all the mechanics, I finally got on track and did the time.
‘And the car is crazy here, I wish you could feel it.
‘It’s been ten years trying to get that pole position. If you don’t succeed first time – try harder, try harder,’ he added later. ‘I knew it would eventually come.’
And he was joined at the front, nominally, by his team mate Valtteri Bottas. He appeared to be floundering again – not just off the pace but he also had excursions both in morning practice and early in qualifying – all not helped by knowing he’d add five to his grid place for a gearbox change. He salvaged second best in the end though, and will start seventh.
‘It’s been a really difficult weekend,’ Bottas admitted. ‘My driving was really getting better towards the end of qualifying.’
He’ll start tomorrow on the soft tyres to allow a longer first stint, and may yet come into the picture.
Ferrari for the first time in a while had to give best on pace. Sebastian Vettel was third up, four tenths off Lewis, and will start second. He’ll be in position to attack, but his brow looked furrowed after quali – a possible consequence of Ferrari’s apparent clear advantage yesterday evaporating.
‘Qualifying’s been quite good to be honest,’ Seb insisted though. ‘I tried everything on the last run, I ran out of track at the exit of the esses.
‘Would have loved to have been a bit quicker.’
Red Bull as expected was the quickest in the twisty stuff but really lost out in the flat out end of the lap, including through 130R. It’s in effect a straight for Merc and Ferrari, but as Ben Anderson explained, for Red Bull its ‘residual inefficiencies in the engine through the transmission are exposed under severe load’. The Red Bull pair therefore were a second off Lewis.
Still, from its net second row start tomorrow it’ll be a player. Daniel Ricciardo will also be relieved to pip his whipper-snapper stable mate Max Verstappen for once.
‘I crossed the line and wasn’t shaking my head. I felt like the lap was all I could get out of it,’ Ricciardo said later.
‘Again really close with Max, I think we’re obviously pushing each other in a good way. I’m happy to inherit third.
‘Hopefully that clean side [of the grid] gives me that little bit more I’m after and I can run with the leaders at the beginning.
‘I’ve set my car up more for the race and taken some downforce off.’
Worries yet linger for Mercedes for the race. As in Sepang it’s not clear the extent that this is a Lewis pole rather than a Merc one. Pertinently, while practice was heavily disrupted, its longer runs yesterday looked well off Ferrari’s, much further than its single lap pace did.
‘It felt good on the soft tyre, perhaps less good on the supersoft,’ Lewis added.
‘Generally our car is very good in qualifying trim; generally when we get to a race, we are maybe a step back. We’ve put ourselves in the best position. It’s hard to overtake, if not impossible to overtake here.
‘The Ferraris will be rapid, as they always are.’
Pirelli predicted two-stoppers tomorrow rather than the usual one – albeit based on not very much running – so maybe there will be double to opportunities to shuffle the order. If the prangs continue – things to hit are close here – then there’ll be safety cars too.
A few drivers have discovered this weekend that Suzuka bites. Kimi Raikkonen did with a practice crash which got him also a five place grid drop for a gearbox change. Romain Grosjean ended Q1 early with a more definitive smash.
Kimi like Bottas completed Q2 on soft tyres rather than the supersofts, though he’ll have to do his stuff from further back, as he only managed sixth today which coverts to (probably) tenth on the grid. The order penalties are applied is part of the consideration.
Fernando Alonso (35 places), Jolyon Palmer (20) and Carlos Sainz (20) also have grid penalties, due to technical woes. It’s one of those days, like in Monza, where the qualifying session only is the start of who starts where.
Of the remainder Force India was once again best of the rest – though its aim to challenge Red Bull was predictably fanciful. Yet the Silverstone cars will start fifth and sixth tomorrow due to others’ penalties mentioned, Esteban Ocon ahead.
Felipe Massa was ninth while Alonso completed the top ten, though faces shifting to the back as intimated.
Yet for the reasons outlined, penalties are not the only way in which the end of Suzuka’s qualifying hour is far from the end of the matter.
Author: Graham Keilloh
Want to be a guest writer on VitalF1.com?