By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Business as usual for Red Bull Racing
- Hamilton happy to be fighting for win
- Alonso takes fourth on tomorrow’s grid
Sebastian Vettel once again took pole position for the European GP at the Valencia street circuit, his seventh of the season. Despite the general consensus Red Bull would be affected the most by the new rule which says engine mappings can not be changed between qualifying and the race, Vettel proved he still has the fastest car of the field and will be starting from first place on Sunday’s start grid.
“There was a lot of talk going into this GP about the regulation changes and there will be a lot of talk before the next one,” Vettel said smiling. “I think everyone will lose out on something, but people expect us to lose more than other teams and that is where I disagree.” And his expectations for Sunday? “It’s good to have the front row for our team, but it will be a long race tomorrow,” the German said.
His team colleague Mark Webber took second place, while Lewis Hamilton was the fastest of the McLaren drivers and landed third position. During the last stages of Q3 both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button tried to improve on Vettel’s time, but both made mistakes during their last attempt, Alonso finished fourth, and Button sixth.
The first qualifying session got underway under a hot and sunny sky, and with 24 cars on track all trying to concur the best spot on the start grid, it was sometimes difficult to get a free lap without slower cars ahead. Most drivers started the first session on the medium compound Pirelli tyre, for Red Bull it was business as usual and with still 15 minutes left on the clock Vettel and Webber were already the fastest drivers on the track.
Not much later it was Button who took over Vettel’s first position with three-tenths of a second, but his team colleague Hamilton then improved his time and took first position. Team crews on the pit wall were beginning to wonder whether FIA Race Director Charlie Withing’s assessment Red Bull would lose half a second due to the changed regulations had been correct or not, but Red Bull would prove today they hadn’t lost any speed at all.
Sauber driver Sergio Perez was the first who decided to make a run on the soft tyres, a good decision, as he set the fourth time after just one timed lap. Others soon followed, Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi was also fast on the softs and took fourth place from Perez. By now there wasn’t much time left, and a number of drivers who had followed a risky strategy and stayed out until the very last moment were soon to regret that decision.
Jaime Alguersuari stayed in the garage and ventured onto the circuit on his soft tyres at the very last moment, but he was caught in traffic and finished Q1 in 18th position. With so many drivers now on the very fast soft compound, Webber and Felipe Massa were pushed back to 17th and 18th position, and were forced to use a set of soft tyres to ensure they would make it into Q2. When the chequered flag was waved, only Alguersuari and Jarno Trulli still had a chance to go to Q2, but Alguersuari could not even on the soft tyres improve his time, and Trulli spun at the last corner and had to give up his fast lap.
Alguersuari was obviously disappointed, “On my first lap, which was always going to produce the best performance from the tyres, I got big traffic so could not do a good time. I tried again on the second lap but I was getting a lot of oversteer as the tyres were not at their best anymore.”
Alguersuari, both Team Lotus drivers Heikki Kovalainen and Trulli, as well as both Marussia Virgin drivers Timo Glock and Jerome d’Ambrosio, and HRT drivers Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan failed to make it into Q2, but all qualified within 107 per cent of the fastest Q1 time.
Kovalainen was again the fastest of the Team Lotus drivers. “For me that was a pretty good performance. I found some more time on my second run and I definitely got as much as I could out of myself and the car, so even though the gap to the cars ahead isn't what we want it to be it's still satisfying to have delivered on that goal,” the Finn said.
At the start of Q2 all drivers realized they had to go out quick and set a time on the soft tyres, and didn’t want to take the risk to try to qualify for Q3 on the medium compound. Both Ferrari drivers were first out on the circuit, Webber soon followed as he also didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. Most drivers aimed for just one fast run, hoping to save a set of soft tyres for the race.
But once again the Red Bull duo Webber and Vettel were fastest, and soon Webber set the benchmark with a time of 1m38.058s. Alonso was now also out on his oft tyres, and cheered on by the Spanish home crowd he topped Webber’s time and recorded a lap of 1m37.930s. But an undeterred Vettel then fought back and in his turn improved Alonso’s time with 0.635s.
Both Mercedes drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg did wait longer to make their first run in Q2, both posted their fasted lap of the day which was at that moment good for seventh and eighth position respectively. They did take a risk staying in the garage so long, as the session was red-flagged after Pastor Maldonado’s Williams had stopped in the middle of the track after his engine had stopped. Not a mistake from the Venezuelan, but he nevertheless had to climb out of his car which of course also meant his chances to make it into Q3 were effectively over.
Maldonado had not clue about what happened with his car, “We obviously had a problem with the car but we don’t know what it is; the engineers are looking into it. It’s quite strange because we haven’t had any other issues over the weekend.” And he added, “The car feels strong at the moment so I think we could have made it into Q3 today if it weren’t for that.”
The clock had stopped with exactly 7m59s still to go, all cars returned to the garage and marshals arrived to retrieve the stricken Williams to bring it back to the pit lane. They did a good job and after just five minutes the pit lane lights turned to green again and Q2 was resumed. But it remained quiet in the pit lane as team and drivers had to re-think their plans.
Lotus Renault driver Vitaly Petrov was the first to hit the track, as he had not yet set a time, again a risky strategy just to save on the tyres. Both Sauber drivers Perez and Kamui Kobayashi soon joined the Russian, as they had been forced to abort their fast run when the red flag for Maldonado was waved.
Again the battle for the fastest time was between Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari, while Schumacher and Rosberg did their best to follow them. But it was again a Toro Rosso driver who was caught by surprise, Buemi, like Alguersuari, also couldn’t improve his time on the soft tyres and ended on 17th and last place during Q2.
Meanwhile both Sauber drivers tried everything they could, but Perez just couldn’t find the right pace and finished 16th, while Kobayashi locked up his wheels in the final corner and recorded the 14th fastest time, not good enough for Q3. Kobayashi was still optimistic ahead of the race. ”Generally our car improved and, again, I am very confident for the race. We have shown we are much better in race conditions,” the Japanese driver said.
The remaining Williams piloted by Rubens Barrichello also tried to get into Q3, but had to abandon his first run after he made a small mistake at the final turn and although he had a good second run, did not get any further than 13th place. Barrichello about his qualifying, “We should have made it into Q3 today. My plan for the race is to do the best I can and enjoy myself. We are only just outside the points and there are opportunities to overtake around this track so we will see what we can do.”
Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta were also battling to get into Q3, Sutil was the fastest of the pair, and he fought for tenth position with Petrov. Heidfeld in the second Lotus Renault had already secured ninth position, Petrov was initially faster than Sutil and had landed tenth and last position for Q3, but Sutil in a desperate last attempt squeezed out a very fast lap, and crossed the finish line in tenth position, pushing Petrov back to 11th place. The last man who still had a free lap after the chequered flag was waved was Scot di Resta, but he made two mistakes in the last sector and finish in 12th position.
Thus Petrov, di Resta, Barrichello, Kobayashi, Maldonado, Perez and Buemi were eliminated for Q3.
With just ten minutes time for the final run for pole position, the remaining ten drivers only had time for two quick runs, and it didn’t take long before the first drivers exited the pit lane for Q3. Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Hamilton and Button started their first run, and one should not forget they all were in race trim, as it is no longer allowed to change the engine mapping or tyres after qualifying.
Alonso set the benchmark with a lap of 1.37.454s, Massa took second place, but both McLaren drivers were also on a fast lap, Button topped Massa’s time, but Hamilton is faster than both and sets a new fastest time: 1m37.380s. But as said before, it was business as usual for Red Bull, and Vettel smashed Hamilton’s time by recording the fasted time of the weekend and took pole position with a lap of 1m36.975s.
Webber soon took second place, Hamilton tried to go faster but abandoned his attempt after locking up his front tyres and returned to the pit lane without even finishing the lap. The same happened to Alonso, who of course wanted to grab pole in front of his home crowd, he also made a small mistake, knew the game was over and steered his Ferrari into the pit lane. Vettel was still on track doing a fast lap, just in case, but he also aborted his lap when he realized all his rivals had returned to the pit.
Second place man Webber about his last lap, “That was a pretty good lap. There are so many corners here that you’d like to put them all together perfectly from all of your runs, but that’s not the case and you have to try and put them together when it counts.”
Hamilton was happy with third place, “I’m excited to be in the fight: we can win from this position. Of course, we’ll need a bit of luck with the strategy and the pit stops, but our guys are on great form.”
Massa ultimately took sixth place, followed by Button, Rosberg and Schumacher, while Heidfeld and Sutil did not even left the garage during Q3 to save tyres for tomorrow’s race, and finish in ninth and tenth position respectively.