Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
Lewis Hamilton will leave the start grid from pole position for tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. The 2008 World Champion very convincingly recorded a fastest lap of 1m24.922s, which was 0.152s faster than Jenson Button who took second place in the other McLaren. A strong performance by McLaren, both Hamilton and Button now have a clear advantage over their rivals Red Bull and Mercedes for tomorrow’s race.
Hamilton was thrilled by his first pole of the season, “I’m massively proud of my team. We’ve been working incredibly hard throughout the winter: we’ve never given up, and everyone has just kept pushing and pushing. We’ve had some tough years, but everyone in this team wants to succeed: to be the best. I’m proud that I was able to do the job for them today!”
Frenchman Romain Grosjean took third place with a time of 1m25.302s, proving the Lotus E20 is indeed a fast car, but his team mate star driver Kimi Raikkonen made a mistake in Q1 and ended up on a very disappointing 18th spot on the grid. Grosjean however, was excited with his third place, “It is fantastic for everybody. It is really nice to be back in Formula One and I'm enjoying it. I have a few people who believe in me and I am back almost at the top. I hope we can keep going all season long and in the end it will be a nice story.
A good start for McLaren in Melbourne, but certainly not a good start for title defender Red Bull and 2011 World Champion Sebastian Vettel, who clearly had problems with the handling of his by Adrian Newey designed RB08 and finished in sixth place behind his Australian team mate Mark Webber who will be leaving the grid from fifth position during his home Grand Prix.
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner admitted they had still some work to do on the car, but nevertheless remained optimistic, ”Sebastian never seemed to really find the pace in the car that seemed to be there this morning, so we have plenty to look at this evening. Fifth and sixth is far from a disaster and with the double DRS zones available this year, I’m sure we can be in better shape tomorrow afternoon.”
No rain this time but a clear blue sky when drivers ventured onto the track for the first part of qualifying this morning in Melbourne. Marussia was the first team to go out as drivers Timo Glock and Charles Pic are still catching up after they arrived in Australia with a brand new but untested car. Also both HRT’s were out early, but drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan were too slow to comply to the 107 per cent rule and they did not qualify for tomorrow’s race.
Most drivers were on the medium compound Pirellis in Q1, Hamilton was eager to put his McLaren in the top ten but was a bit too eager as he was also the first to plough through the grass when he went off at Turn 1. No damage done though and he soon recorded the quickest time, but his time was immediately beaten by Button and Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber.
With still ten minutes to go Button was leading the pack, followed by Kobayashi, Hamilton, Senna in the Williams, Vettel and Webber. Grosjean was seventh while Raikkonen was eighth. But it was Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes who surprised and impressed everyone by taking over first spot on his very first timed lap.
By then it was already clear to see Red Bull was struggling, as both drivers had a few hairy moments, especially the rear of the car seemed very loose which made the car difficult to handle accelerating out of corners. With just five minutes to go in Q1 and Heikki Kovalainen (Caterham), Felipe Massa (Ferrari), Vitaly Petrov (Caterham) and both Marussia and HRT drivers were outside the top 17.
Massa was able to improve his time and moved up to 16th place, Alonso also improved his time and moved up to fourth position, while Raikkonen as a result dropped down to 18th position with just minutes to go. The Finn was in a hurry to improve his time, but he made a mistake and ran wide. He aborted his quick lap and started another fast lap but he was too late and was not able to improve his time and he will be starting the race from a very disappointing 18th place on the grid.
Raikkonen about his costly mistake, “We had plenty of speed and I just ran wide in Turn 12 and we were supposed to have one more lap and that's why I slowed down.” And he further explained, “Probably if I'd just kept going we would have been fast enough to go through. I was supposed to have one more lap and I was just speeding up through the last corner when the red lights came on … it was close but I just missed my last lap. There's no point to blame anyone. What's happened has happened and we just have to do the best job with the situation.”
Thus Raikkonen, Kovalainen, Petrov, Glock, Pic, de la Rosa and Karthikeyan would not take part in Q2.
Vettel was quickly out in Q2 and set the benchmark with a time of 1m25.982s, but it was Alonso who attracted the attention when he started his first flying lap. He drove his Ferrari to fourth place but after that lap he put the left wheels of his Ferrari on the grass at the entrance of Turn 1, and helplessly slid into the gravel trap. The Spaniard frantically waved to the marshals asking them to give him a push, but to no avail, as he remained stuck in the gravel and had to abandon his car.
Red flags were waved and the session was temporarily suspended to give the marshals the opportunity to remove the stricken Ferrari. “I think I touched the grass. I obviously didn't realize when I was driving but looking at the TV the left tyres were on the grass so I spun putting the tyres there and qualifying finished unfortunately in the gravel,” an unhappy Alonso reported.
About Ferrari’s poor performance the Spaniard said, “We're obviously not quick enough, we're obviously not competitive to fight for the top places at the moment so this is something that maybe we knew and we expected after winter testing. We had some ideas and today we have confirmed that we are not competitive. There's still a lot of work to do, we have to be more determined than either.”
Bad news for Ferrari with Alonso now sidelined, but soon it would become an even greater drama for the famous team from Maranello.
Hamilton was leading when the red flag came out, followed by Button, Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso), Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg (Force India), Massa, and Senna was tenth in the Williams.
When the session was resumed, Massa was out first on a flying lap as he was in the danger zone with his ninth position, but the Brazilian could not improve his time. To make things worse, he was pushed out of the top ten by Rosberg and Michael Schumacher who took first and second place at the time.
Also Grosjean was quick and he also moved back into the top ten again, as did Hulkenberg, Maldonado and Ricciardo, which meant Massa tumbled down the order to 16th place, and Alonso tumbled down to 12th place and both Ferraris would not take part in Q3. A major embarrassment for Ferrari, and obviously not a good start of the season.
On top of that, Massa was a full second slower than Alonso, and Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo will now probably be wondering whether he made the right decision to give the Brazilian one last chance.
When Q3 started, it was already clear Red Bull wasn’t able to dominate qualifying as they have done for the past two years, and Vettel decided to make two runs. Schumacher was the quickest at the first stage of Q3 as he took first place while his team mate Rosberg took second.
Both McLaren drivers also decided to do two runs and soon Hamilton took first place with a lap of 1m24.922s, and with five minutes to go he was followed by Vettel, Schumacher, Button, Grosjean and Rosberg. Webber had stayed in the garage to save a set of the soft Pirellis for the race tomorrow, but he soon joined the battle for pole position.
With Hamilton leading, the rest had only one run left to attack the Briton’s time, finally it was Button who came closest with a lap of 1m25.074s which gave him right to second place. Grosjean made an impressive return by taking third place during his last run, proving the Lotus is indeed a fast car and one cannot help wondering what Raikkonen could have done if he had made it into Q3, the car is certainly fast enough.
Schumacher took fourth place in his Mercedes, while Rosberg was seventh. Also drama for Red Bull as Webber outperformed Vettel an took fifth place, Vettel was sixth and 0.746s slower than Hamilton. Title defender Vettel played down his lackluster qualifying result, “We are not starting at the front, but we are not starting at the back either, so it’s far from disastrous and regarding the car we know what we need to do. It’s the first qualifying of the year, so it’s always difficult to know what to expect, but I think what we saw today was not a surprise, the lap times were close.”
And the German added, “We would have loved to have been closer to the front, but in Q3 I wasn’t happy with my lap. I made a mistake at the beginning and lost some time, so that was down to me. I could have been one or two places higher, but that’s how it goes.”
Maldonado, Hulkenberg and Ricciardo stayed in the garage also to save a set of the soft tyres during Q3 and they became eighth, ninth and tenth respectively.
Pole winner Hamilton said about his flying lap, “I just love qualifying, especially when you get the lap just right; when it all flows, the tyres work and you hit the sweet-spot everywhere. It’s like heaven. Today we showed that we not only have the most beautiful car in Formula 1, but also the fastest!” About the race tomorrow he commented, “Of course, there’s still a long way to go tomorrow – looking after the tyres will be key – but we’re in the best possible position to have a strong race.”
Second place man Button stated, “Lewis nailed a great lap in Q3, but I think the whole team is really happy to have both cars on the front row – it’s been a long time coming to have the two of us there together. You always want to be first, but I couldn’t quite do that today. Nevertheless, I think we both want to thank the team – it’s a big vindication of how far we’ve come this winter.”
McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh expects a tough race tomorrow, “We think we’ll have a good race car; we know we’ll have two great race drivers; so, although we never under-estimate our competition, and although we’re sure tomorrow’s race will be as demanding as it will be entertaining, I guess you could say that we fancy our chances.”
Latest news is that HRT has asked the FIA stewards to permit them to take part in tomorrow’s race, and their fate is in the hands of the FIA. Normal rule is that when a driver was unable to qualify, the team must be able to prove he was up to speed during the three free practice sessions, which will be difficult for HRT, as both drivers were almost eight seconds off the pace during the last free practice this morning.
Also bad news for Sergio Perez, the gearbox of his car had to be replaced and he gets a five-place grid penalty and will be starting not from 17th but from 22rd and last place on the grid.
Rumors have also emerged Red Bull and Lotus are preparing to lodge a post-qualifying protest regarding the new F-Duct version of the Mercedes team, they had already approached FIA’s Charlie Whiting and asked him to reconsider his decision the so-called ‘passive’ F-Duct is legal, but it is expected Whiting will not change his opinion.