By: Max Davies, F1 Correspondent
Defending world champion Sebastian Vettel shocked the Formula One paddock after setting a blistering pace in Australia and claiming pole position for the first race of the 2011 season ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren Mercedes.
Lapping the Albert Park circuit in a blistering 1m23.529s, the German began the defense of his title in emphatic style by leaving his nearest rival over 0.7s adrift and in a daze as to how the lap time was achieved. Drivers up and down the pit lane appeared shell shocked as the margin of Red Bull’s performance yet the pace setter was determined to make any rash predictions.
“It's promising for Sunday so we'll see how we get on,” said Vettel. “We have made the first step and starting the season this way with a pole position is a good sign for the team. We've been working very hard to get the RB7 to where it is now - it's thanks to all those in the factory and those here, down under, for preparing the car. If you look at the points we still have zero like everyone else, so we need to see what happens tomorrow."
It's promising for Sunday so we'll see how we get on
Hamilton declared himself very satisfied with his lap and declared his admiration for the team after an impressive resurrection with the performance of the MP4-26. Winter testing having highlighted the chronic deficiencies with the car, the team elected to revert to a more conventional exhaust and rear end package for the start of the year.
"I was really happy with my lap today,” Hamilton declared after setting a best time of 1m24.407s. “The car felt fantastic, and I owe it all to the guys back at the factory, in the design office and those building components. They need to give themselves a huge pat on the back. It was a brave decision to make such a dramatic change to the car, and a superb effort to deliver that change. An amazing turnaround! However, although I was pleased with my performance today, my KERS Hybrid stopped working halfway round my final lap - I had 40 per cent left that I couldn't deploy - but that would have been worth only an extra couple of tenths.”
And added, “Still, it's good to know, because this car platform is now definitely something we can build upon. We need to take home some good points from this weekend because we know our car will only get better. We still have some work to do, but I think the race is winnable from here - and I'll be giving Sebastian the race of his life tomorrow!"
A bemused Webber admitted he was unable to figure out just where his team mate had gained an advantage of such magnitude and there was much head scratching in evidence in the post-qualifying press conference after posting his second place effort of 1m24.307s.
"I was disappointed with my performance today,” Webber sighed during the televised press conference. “Sebastian put in a very good lap. I'm a little bit mystified by the gap to be honest, I tried my best. I'll have to go through it and have a look at where I can improve and go from there. It's frustrating, but credit to the team; the guys have done an incredible job. Obviously it wasn't the best day for me, but the bar is high. I would like to have done better, but reflecting on the performance of the team and what they've done over the winter - it's incredible."
Button admitted that while he felt there was more speed to come from his performance, which culminated in a best lap of 1m24.779s, progress had been made on his way to fourth.
"I think we should be happy with this result,” the 2009 world champion said. “We didn't get the most out of our package in Q3, but it's nonetheless a massive step forward from what we had in testing, so we should all be very happy with what we've done so far. And there's still a lot we can build on: the car is still in its early stages because we haven't done much testing. I'm really looking forward to tomorrow: I had a good race from fourth last year, and I think I can have a good race from fourth this year, too. We ought to be positive and think we can challenge for the win tomorrow."
Surprisingly off the pace, Fernando Alonso struggled in the Ferrari – the double world champion only managing 5th place with a best time of 1m24.974s. To his credit, the Spaniard broke with tradition by not throwing his toys out of the pram and instead choosing the optimistic route when talking to reporters.
Clearly, we cannot be happy with this result
"Clearly, we cannot be happy with this result, but we must not immediately make a drama out of it,” he said. “We definitely did not get the most out of the car and we have to understand the reasons for that. Compared to what we saw at the tests, here we ended up much closer to cars that had been a long way off in Spain. We went well yesterday and we had a good feeling for the car, while right from this morning the situation changed, obviously for the worse. Now let's see how the race turns out. In testing and in yesterday's free practice, our performance over a long run was good and we were definitely closer to those who today seem to be a long way off.”
Perhaps the performance of the day went to Vitaly Petrov who comprehensively saw off the challenge of his Lotus Renault team mate and Robert Kubica’s replacement, Nick Heidfeld, on his way to 6th on the grid. Much was made of the Russian’s poor performance last year so this was a welcome tonic, especially as Heidfeld was expected to take the lead for the year.
"After all the hard work during a very tough winter for the whole team, it feels great to come here and qualify on the third row,” Petrov said. “There was a lot of pressure in Q3 because I only had one run, right at the end of the session. So there were no second chances and I'm glad I was able to deliver the lap.”
A culmination of driver error on one lap and car instability rendered Nico Rosberg’s best effort only good enough for 7th in the Mercedes GP with a 1m25.421s. The German enjoyed a productive final pre-season test at Barcelona after major upgrades were fitted to the MGP02 so finding himself so low down the order was a surprise.
"I'm disappointed as when I went to bed last night, I was hopeful of a good qualifying performance,” he declared. “In the morning, a few things didn't work on my car, but the team did a good job and almost all of the systems were working for qualifying, so we need to find out what happened. I did make a small mistake in Q3 which possibly cost me a place but it hasn't quite come together for us this weekend. One good thing is that I will start on the clean side of the grid, and we will do our best to score some good points tomorrow."
We will do our best to score some good points tomorrow
Eighth quickest in the second Ferrari, Felipe Massa endured a mixed afternoon, culminating in an unnecessary spin on the exit of Turn 1 in Q3 before setting his 1m25.599s lap. Once again, then Brazilian was out paced by Alonso and one may assume, has given a green light to Ferrari that he is not the one capable of challenging for the title, yet again and that they may start putting all their eggs into Alonso’s basket.
"We were less competitive than we could rightly have expected and there's no doubt about that,” Massa said. Sure, I did not think I would be fighting for pole, especially when you look at the very quick time that Vettel did, but I had hoped to be higher up the order. My spin in Q3? When I came out of pit lane, I accelerated and the tyres were evidently still too cold: the set was not damaged for the race, but it was definitely not a help on my only flying lap."
As ever, Kamui Kobayashi entertained the crowds getting his Sauber sideways a few times under acceleration out of some corners on his ay to 9th position. The kamikaze driver’s impressionable style generated large pockets of applause but his 1m25.626s lap was impressive nonetheless, especially as the young driver was still reeling from the effects of the recent earthquake and tsunami, which devastated his Japanese homeland.
"Overall performance wise we are not too bad and now we see what we have done in the winter was okay. Of course there are still things to improve, but this is only the first Grand Prix and making it into Q3 is good. I want to thank the team. I only wish I had a set of new tyres left for Q3, instead of the used set of soft tyres, as then I think P6 would have been possible. However, I believe today is positive news and I'm very happy to give that to Japan."
Confirming that their winter testing form was no fluke, Toro Rosso took 10th with Sebastien Buemi’s 1m27.066s lap. Under pressure to perform following a lackluster 2010 campaign, the Swiss driver declared himself content with his performance.
"I am very happy to be back in Q3, as we had not been there since 2009,” Buemi said. “I could not have hoped for a better start to the season, being among the ten fastest cars on the grid. My quick lap was good and I don't think I could have done any better."
Michael Schumacher was a very disappointed 11th for Mercedes GP following several issues with his car including a stuttering KERS system but the German’s 1m25.971s lap was enough to see off the challenge of Jamie Alguersuari in the sister Toro Rosso who claimed 12th with a best time of 1m26.103s.
Following on from his decent showing in free practice, Sergio Perez was the leading rookie on a 1m26.108s for Sauber, ahead of another debutant, the impressive Paul Di Resta who impressed with a fastest lap of 1m26.739s. Surprisingly, the best performance in the Williams camp came from newcomer and reigning GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado who set a time of 1m26.768s while his illustrious team mate Rubens Barrichello spun into the gravel on his first flying lap in Q2. Sandwiched by the two Williams’s, Adrian Sutil was a disappointed 16th in the other Force India on a 1m31.407s although he did provide some momentary entertainment by running over the curb under acceleration out of the final turn and into a smoke-filled, tyre squealing 360 degree spin in front of the main grandstand.
Undoubtedly, the surprise of the say was Nick Heidfeld failing to make it out of Q1. The German, deputizing for the injured Robert Kubica, could only manage a best time of 1m27.239s and was fortunate not to be overtaken by the chasing Team Lotus cars of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli who took 19th and 20th positions with laps of 1m29.254s and 1m29.342s respectively.
As anticipated, Marussia Virgin failed to impress with Timo Glock posting a 1m29.858s lap and Jerome D’Ambrosio on a 1m30.822s on their way to 21st and 22nd place each. Hispania drivers Vitantonio Luizzi (1m32.978s) and Narain Karthikeyan (1m34.293s) failed to qualify under the new 107% rule as their best efforts were hindered due to several problems with the new car and no winter testing and minimal running during yesterday’s free practice sessions.
The scene is set for tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix to raise the curtain on the 2011 Formula One season.
On sheer pace, Sebastian Vettel looks capable of dominating but we enter the unknown tomorrow in terms off weather conditions, tyre performance and the use of KERS and DRS. All the elements are in place for a terrific opening race of the season, so lets kick back, turn up the volume and embrace the storm that’s rapidly approaching…