Lewis Hamilton starts his 2008 championship campaign in the best possible position, having secured pole position for tomorrow’s race around the Albert Park lake. In what was an eventful session that saw an early exit for reigning world champion Kimi Raikkonen, the final ten minute dash turned out to be quite the anti-climax. I’ll save the discussion of the new qualifying format for another post, so let’s go through the field and see how they all did.
The reigning champions had a disastrous qualifying. Although the F2008s appear to be okay, they haven’t exactly set the track on fire yet and now their reliability is called into question. During Q1 both drivers were going well, Massa enjoying some form in his car. But halfway through the new twenty-minute session Kimi’s car was seen crawling back to the pitlane, halting just prior to the line. In effect, his qualifying ended despite setting a time that would have seen him through into Q2, and a time that if set in Q2 would have put him in eleventh. Unfortunately, this set back will mean the Finn starts from sixteenth on the grid tomorrow. Massa went through the Q2 but his pace wasn’t quite up to it and he started to slide back down the table. However, the Brazilian got into Q3 and ended his day in fourth; some reprieve for the Scuderia. It should be noted that Raikkonen baulked Kubica in Q1, but as of yet no action has been taken as it didn’t look to be intentional. I’m sure Kubica has something to say about it though.
Pole position for the Woking team and Heikki Kovalainen starts directly behind his team mate in third. All in all the sessions went well for the team and I’m sure their are grins on all the staff’s faces this evening in Melbourne. Hamilton did well to claim the pole even though he looked pretty hairy at some points. Last year we all saw that the Briton runs his car fairly ragged and isn’t afraid to jump it around. Without the traction control it is enough to make your heart stop. Several times Hamilton had the back-end of the car out of line, and through the penultimate corner in Q1 managed to completely slide his MP4-23 out of the turn. However, his control compensated and the pole deserved. Kovalainen also did well to get to third, underlying the pace in the McLaren and marking them out as very strong contenders for lots of wins this season.
All winter they’ve looked a bit off-colour. The team were moaning and saying they felt they needed to do more to get the car to where they want it. And then in Friday practice they continue their off-form, adding to the worry for fans the world over. But Saturday morning to turned the wick up and Robert Kubica led Nick Heidfeld to a one-two. This pace was carried on to qualifying where Heidfeld managed fifth and Kubica second. And you know what, the Pole would have been on pole if he hadn’t got it a bit wrong through one of the corners. On his final blast Robert slid off the track at speed, caught the car and slid back on. The moment easily cost him two-three tenths. His margin to Hamilton? ~0.15s. Clearly BMW have their cars hooked-up well around Albert Park. Whether or no this can be converted into race pace is another question but for now, they look good.
This time last year Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore was pretty upset. His drivers weren’t performing well and harsh words were being spoken. Unfortunately, it appears to be deja vu for the Anglo-French squad as Nelson Piquet Jr sulks back in P21. The Brazilian hasn’t been running at all well this weekend and his qualifying effort is just, well, appalling. Piquet is a rookie, the pressures and demands are extreme. But I’ve never seen anything as poor as this from Renault in a long time. Fernando Alonso faired better, taking twelfth on the grid. The Spaniard couldn’t get into Q3 but twelfth isn’t too bad of a position. After all, he is starting ahead of Raikkonen.
The plucky-privateers have been going well so far in Australia. A gear box scare on Friday has been overcome and Nico Rosberg got into Q3 and finished up seventh. Kazuki Nakajima, taking part in his second ever grand prix, couldn’t match his team mate and ended his day in Q2 with fourteenth on the grid.
Red Bull Racing
Similarly to BMW, Red Bull have shown their true colours today and both drivers were on excellent form during qualifying. The RB4 seems to be handling well and providing it stays in one piece could spoil a few parties this season. Unfortunately though, Mark Webber suffered a mechanical failure during Q2 and spun off the track. His session ended there with no time set. The TV pictures clearly picked up a plume of black smoke/dust coming from the front-right of the RB4 just prior to the incident, indicating a brake failure of some sort. David Coulthard faired better though, getting into Q3 and eventually ending up in eighth.
Surprisingly, the Toyota’s aren’t looking too bad; I have some humble pie baking in the oven as I type. Both drivers made it into Q3 and Jarno Trulli went sixth, ahead of team mate Timo Glock in ninth. Glock’s performance deserves a mention considering he hasn’t driven a Formula One car in anger since 2004. While the German has raced in America and in GP2, his only recent experience with Formula One has been testing duties for BMW and pre-2008 season with Toyota. I thought his effort today was excellent and Timo’s Q2 time was only 0.06s shy of Trulli.
With Ross Brawn at the helm and the team decked out in bright green trousers, they will surely improve this year? Well, I don’t know if it the slacks or if it is Brawn, but they appear to have made up some ground from their 2007 pace and both drivers were seen smiling after their qualifying efforts. Surprisingly Rubens Barrichello got the legs on Jenson Button today, the Brazilian out-performing his team mate who is said to have excellent abilities with cars that lack traction control. Barrichello’s efforts found him in eleventh, just shy of Q3 while Button was a tenth down in thirteenth.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
For me, the man of qualifying was Sebastian Vettel. The young German rocked to the top of the timing sheet in the earlier practice session and stayed there for quite a while, and then hauled his one-year old Scuderia Toro Rosso into Q3 with style. I am genuinely impressed. Although the car isn’t really a year old – it has been modified in some areas – his final tenth place is admirable. Vettel actually didn’t set a lap time in Q3, choosing instead to scrub a set of tyres and then return to the pits, keeping as much fuel in the car as possible. Team mate Sebastien Bourdais failed to get out of Q1 and rests down in eighteenth. The team were concerned about his qualifying pace and these have been proven correct. However, Bourdais is an exerienced racer and I believe, providing his car is set up reasonably well, he should improve on this in the race.
Well, they’re there and they qualified for the race. Unfortunately, if it hadn’t been for the lack-lustre Piquet, Taluma Sato and Anthony Davidson would have been propping up the timing sheet. Davidson starts the race at the back, directly behind Sato who is in twentieth. Hopefully they can improve now the they have financial stability, but the prospects for the race tomorrow don’t look too good.
Giancarlo Fisichella had a goal of getting into Q2 in Australia. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite make it but again, his car isn’t looking too bad. The team have improved a lot over the winter and the experienced driver from Rome starts the race in seventeenth. Adrian Sutil sits in nineteenth and the pair have a good base car under them that can be improved upon as the season progresses.