Hannah Taylor, F1 Correspondent
With only five races remaining of the Formula One 2011 season, the Marina Bay Circuit will play host to the Singapore Grand Prix for the fourth year in a row on Sunday. Following the action on the track just from today’s qualifying, it certainly looks set to be a tough race between and for the drivers. Despite struggling in the final seconds of his flying lap in Q3, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel added another pole position to the 10 he has already achieved this season. Vettel remains optimistic about his chances in the race, and explains the challenge the street circuit poses.
“It’s a very fun track and a big challenge. It’s difficult with so many corners and it’s a long lap to get everything together, but we kept our heads cool and did it today. It’s great we have both cars on the front row, but let’s see tomorrow, it’s a very, very long race”, commented Vettel.
The German’s team mate Mark Webber crossed the line to take second place on the grid for tomorrow. The Australian held off competition from McLaren’s Jenson Button, who performed well throughout qualifying. The 2009 World Champion will start the race from third place, and managed to get in front of and out qualify his team mate Lewis Hamilton for the fourth time this season.
As Q1 got underway to mark the first knock out stage, the midfield runners initially had their time to shine. Rubens Barrichello took the plunge ahead of the others, and set a lap time of 1:51.042secs to lead the field temporarily. The Brazilian driver was soon beaten pace wise by Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi. The Japanese driver snatched the top spot from Barrichello with a lap time of 1:49.097secs.
Paul Di Resta could not quite catch Barrichello and Kobayashi to leap ahead, but as one of the five rookies in the field this season still impressed with his performance. The Force India driver got himself into second place on his first run.
Barrichello’s team mate Pastor Maldonado shortly joined in on the contest between the midfield runners. The Venezuelan was in close company at this point, when fellow rookie and Sauber driver Sergio Perez also took to the track to set a time.
While the outsiders seemed to perform well on a personal level, their efforts were soon overshadowed when the top title contenders got warmed up.
Reigning World Champion and master of qualifying this season, Vettel was the first of them to set the bar for quicker pace. His initial attempt took him to first position with a lap time of 1:47.137secs.
However, he was soon under pressure from his Championship rivals, as Hamilton crossed the line to go ahead with a lap time of 1:47.014secs. Although he was a tenth of a second faster than Vettel, his team mate Button was able to go one better. The Englishman impressed with his pace during qualifying as a whole, and was the first to set a time in the 1min46’s.
With less than 13 minutes to go on the clock of the first session, the line up read as follows: Button was first ahead of Hamilton, Vettel was running in third place in front of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Webber was trailing Vettel by a couple of places in fifth position, but Kobayashi was just behind him in sixth place. Di Resta was running well in seventh place and beating his team mate Adrian Sutil who was in eighth position. Maldonado and Perez were following the German in ninth and 10th place respectively. Of the other drivers on the track at that point, who were keeping out of the danger zone, Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari was holding 11th place. Lotus Renault’s Bruno Senna in 12th position, was in a Toro Rosso sandwich as Sebastien Buemi was behind him in 13th position. Since his good form at the beginning of Q1, Barrichello dropped down the field, as the other drivers took the track to set times. He found himself in 14th place later on. Barrichello seemed to share a similar situation with Lotus Renault’s Vitaly Petrov. The Russian appeared to lack pace and could not match his rivals in the field. Consequently, he was quite far down the running order in 15th position at one stage in Q1.
While the midfield battle was in progress and some drivers were struggling, Vettel was maintaining his hold on the number one slot. With less than 11 minutes of the session to go, he improved on his earlier efforts as he set a time of 1:46.397secs.
Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso in the second Ferrari was having his fair share of problems. The Spaniard suffered over steer on his car during his first flying lap. This initial effort did not allow him to muscle in on the action at the very top. The former double World Champion could only manage fourth place at the time. To add insult to injury, Alonso was behind his closest Championship rivals, with Button running in second place and Hamilton was in third position then. Despite this threat that the McLaren duo may have posed, Alonso would have found it a comfort that he was still ahead of his Brazilian team mate Massa, who was in seventh place at that point.
As Alonso had a few ups and downs early on, it also seemed to take Webber a bit of time to show his true form. During Q1 he was battling with Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg. Initially, the German had the upper hand and secured fifth place, but Webber soon took it from his grasp. Rosberg’s team mate and fellow countryman was among the other midfield drivers battles as well. The seven times World Champion was a few places adrift from Rosberg though, which saw him down in ninth place at the time.
As the first stage of qualifying is known for the first seven drivers to drop out, the attention soon turned on the back of the pack. With the clock displaying less than 10 minutes remaining of Q1, the danger zone read as follows: Team Lotus driver Heikki Kovalainen was ahead of his team mate and rival teams in 18th place, Petrov had slipped down the field into 19th position and was ahead of Jarno Trulli in the second Team Lotus. Shortly after the pair crossed the line, the team reported via Trulli’s radio that “Most of the comparison was lost between Turn three and five”. This indicated where Trulli would need to improve, as the Italian was six tenths of a second slower than his Finnish team mate.
Daniel Ricciardo came next for Hispania Racing in 21st place and was in front of his team mate Vitantonio Liuzzi. The Virgin Racing pair were at the very back of the field at the time, with Timo Glock ahead of his rookie team mate, Jerome D’Ambrosio.
Although Hamilton and Button were going well in Q1, mid-way through the session both drivers had a slight wobble with their progress. Hamilton ran wide at Turn seven, while Button reported of under steer. These issues did not seem to affect them for the remainder of Q1 though.
As the majority of the field visited the pits for a tyre change with less than seven minutes to go until the end of Q1, Schumacher was completing a flying lap. This effort saw him remain in eighth place.
Perez was the first driver at the centre of attention, when the field took to the track again. After his tyre change the Mexican driver was in seventh place. With the improvement he had made, Perez shuffled some of the other drivers down the pack. Massa was in eighth place, Barrichello was just behind in ninth position and Schumacher dropped down to 10th place.
Once again the focus soon changed to observe the battle over the seven drop out zone places. With less than three minutes to go, Buemi was running in 17th place. The Swiss driver succeeded in improving his position, as he got into 12th place at the time. Nevertheless, Schumacher had to suffer the consequences of this, as he dropped down to 13th place then. Buemi’s team mate Alguersuari was not too far behind, as he was holding 15th place at the time.
As the crucial time was approaching for the seven drivers in the danger zone, Petrov was still doing his best to get himself through to Q2. With only 30 seconds to improve on his 19th place at that point, he managed to get into 17th place. However, his team mate Senna and Schumacher were also battling to improve on their positions as well. In the final seconds of Q1 Senna successfully pipped Petrov, and out qualified him. This means that Petrov will start the race from 18th place, and has dropped out at the Q1 stage for the first time this season.
Petrov will be accompanied by Kovalainen, who will line up alongside him in 19th place. Kovalainen’s team mate Trulli is just behind him in 20th position. Glock is the first of their rival teams to put them under pressure, as he will start from 21st place. While Glock’s Belgian team mate, d’Ambrosio trails him in 22nd place. Ricciardo comes next in 23rd position and he out qualified his team mate. As well as this, Liuzzi still has the five-place grid penalty hanging over his head, which he was issued with following his antics at the last race. As a result of his qualifying position anyway, the penalty does not impact upon this, as he would have started last in any case.
With seven drivers out of the picture, the next stage of qualifying could begin.
Hamilton was the first of the top title contenders to take to the track. The 2008 World Champion was followed closely behind by Webber. Out of the front-runners, Hamilton was the only driver to opt for the harder prime tyre. The likes of Vettel, Alonso, Button and Webber all chose the supersoft compound.
Hamilton’s choice of tyre seemed to work okay with his first run. The Englishman took the top spot initially, but Button soon came through to pip his team mate. There seemed to be a concertina effect, as the World Champions took it in turns to be in first place and knock each other out of it. Vettel was the last of the three to do so at that point. He crossed the line with a speedy time in the 1min44’s.
Suddenly the battle heating up at the front, and other on track action came to a stand still. Kobayashi had clipped the kerb too hard and was in mid air momentarily, before crashing into the wall at Turn 10. Kobayashi had been on his first flying lap at the time, and although he escaped unscathed the session was red flagged. The clock stopped with nine minutes and fourteen seconds to go, while the race marshals retrieved his car and cleared the debris from the track.
Before Kobayashi’s crash occurred, only eight drivers had recorded a time. Vettel was leading the field from Button. Webber was running in third place ahead of Alonso. While Hamilton was alongside him in fifth position, and di Resta was next in sixth place. Sutil and Barrichello were in seventh and eighth position respectively.
The session restarted at 10:38 local time, and Massa and Rosberg were among those who had not set a time. Massa managed to get into fifth place on his flying lap, while Rosberg was not able to improve on it and was in sixth place.
With four minutes remaining on the clock, the drop zone places were changing constantly. Alguersuari was running in 17th place, until his flying lap put him in 13th position at the time. However, on his way to do so he had a close shave with a wall.
More drama was yet to come, as Hamilton suffered a puncture to his right rear tyre. He was running in eighth place at the time, and stayed there as Q2 came to an end.
Perez and di Resta were scrapping for position, as they fought to try and get through to Q3. Perez was the first of the pair to get ahead as he took 10th place. Di Resta’s patience prevailed though, as he came through to snatch it from Perez. Consequently, Perez was knocked out at the end of Q2, which meant Di Resta could take part in Q3.
The other six drivers accompanying Perez were as follows: Barrichello will start alongside him in 12th place. Barrichello’s team mate, Maldonado is just behind him in 13th position. While Buemi will begin the race from 14th place, Senna lines up next in a Toro Rosso sandwich. The Brazilian driver will have Alguersuari at the other side of him. As a result of his crash during Q2, Kobayashi will start from 17th place.
At last the final top 10 shootout arrived, and it was not short of action early on. Hamilton and Massa were battling with each other during their out laps. At one stage the pair were very close on the track, but Massa had the upper hand and was ahead of Hamilton.
A similar scrap was seen between Button and Alonso. On this occasion though both drivers were competing for provisional first place. With six and a half minutes left on the clock, Button was leading pace wise from Alonso. In the end Button pipped Alonso to take the lead initially with a lap time of 1:44.928secs. Meanwhile, Alonso quickly slipped down to third place, as Hamilton topped the timesheets over Button. However, Hamilton, Button and Alonso all lost a place, when Vettel emerged from the pits and made his mark on his Championship rivals. Vettel went straight to first place with a lap time of 1:44.381secs.
During the early point of Q3 it was only the front-runners on the track, as the midfield looked like they would only do one run. With less than one minute and 50 seconds on the clock though, Hamilton went into the garage and took his gloves off. This indicated that he was not going to go out and improve on his time. Di Resta and Sutil also opted to do the same as Hamilton, and did not take to the track again. It was reported that the decision to do so might have been to save their remaining tyres for the race. In Hamilton’s case, he had already been forced to change his due to the puncture. It was not clear how it had happened, but Hamilton suspected it could have occurred from going over a kerb.
“I’m still not entirely sure how I picked up the puncture at the end of Q2. I went over a kerb at Turn 10 and the tyre sensors detected a sudden loss of pressure. There are quite a few bolts hanging out of the kerbs, so I guess it could have been one of those, but we don’t really know, explained Hamilton.
Despite not all of the top 10 taking part in the closing stages, Rosberg was the first of the midfield to set a time at this point. His effort from this led him to sixth place, but he was under pressure from Massa soon after. Massa crossed the line to take sixth place from him, which meant Rosberg was then in seventh position. Webber was also attempting to improve on his position, as he was running in fourth place. Although he failed to beat Vettel to pole position, Webber made good progress to secure second place.
Vettel did not have an easy ride himself though, despite taking the top spot still. He seemed to have difficulties on his final flying lap, as he ran wide at Turn 10 and could not improve on his earlier lap time. Button was not able to find any more time to catch Webber and had to settle for third place, and still got ahead of Hamilton in the process. Alonso ended up out qualifying his team mate as well and will start from fifth place, with Massa behind him in sixth position. Rosberg will line up next in seventh place in front of Schumacher. Sutil and di Resta round off the top 10, with all drivers and teams lining up together.
As the lights go out to start the Singapore Grand Prix tomorrow, it is certain that the drivers will not have any easy ride ahead of them. They will have to battle against each other, in the heat and night race conditions, as well as managing their tyres with these other factors playing a part. There is also the uncertainty of incidents occurring, which may hamper their race strategies for pit stops. With Vettel currently leading in the Driver’s Standings from Alonso by 112 points, there is the possibility depending on a series of results and how they play out, that he could clinch the title and be a double World Champion in consecutive years. The sport is famous for being unpredictable, and anything can happen over the 61 laps. Inevitably, Vettel will not give in to his closest rivals if he has the opportunity to take it now, and equally they will not want to lose out on improving their chances of scoring some valuable points.