KERS, diffusers, politics… when it comes to the crunch, it all means nothing. What matters is driving as fast as possible, and today in qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel has done just that, capturing his second career pole position and the first for Red Bull Racing. Vettel’s achievement mirrors his maiden pole when he went fastest for sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso last year, and with team mate Mark Webber in third, Red Bull are looking good for tomorrow’s race.
The first qualifying stint threw up some surprise, as Robert Kubica was forced back to the motorhome early. The BMW driver trialled KERS yesterday in free practice, but ultimately the decision was that it provided little in the way of advantage. However, team mate Nick Heidfeld powered his F1.09 through to Q2 while Kubica struggled and eventually finished in a lowly P18.
Towards the end of Q1 though, it wasn’t just Kubica who looked to be in trouble. Before the final laps were posted, Nick Heidfeld joined his team mate towards the bottom of the timing sheet, both McLarens looked to have pace but hadn’t quite dialed it in yet, the Renaults looked down on pace and even Nico Rosberg was slipping back. In a flurry of quick laps though, some resemblance of the standard 2009 order started to form as Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg each improved, as did the Scuderia Toro Rosso of Sebastien Buemi and Heidfeld’s KERS-equipped BMW.
Lewis Hamilton showed the improvements made to the MP4-24 were working well as the Briton looked much more competitive in qualifying, although conversely, both Toyotas only just scraped through the first qualifying run with P9 for Jarno Trulli and P10 for team mate Timo Glock. Those missing the cut in Q1 were Giancarlo Fisichella, Adrian Sutil, Robert Kubica, Nelson Piquet and Sebastien Bourdais.
The second stint saw the times tumble as the drivers all started to use the super-soft compound tyre, and it was this session that the Red Bulls really showed their pace. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber locked out the top two places, beating both Brawns at their own game and proving that KERS and diffusers come second to raw talent.
Doing less well in the talent stakes though were Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld. Up until this session, both drivers had looked fairly safe for the top ten. Although Heidfeld didn’t go that well in practice, the BMW squad often hide their form all weekend, only unleashing their drivers in Q2. Unfortunately, both German drivers failed to get into the third session. Glock will be especially disappointed as well, the Toyota driver having to take a five grid slot penalty for having his gear box changed out of sequence. Glock will actually start tomorrow’s race in P19 barring any other penalties.
The other two perhaps slightly surprising exits from the 15 minute stint, although judging by their 2009 form, it probably wasn’t that surprising, were Felipe Massa and Heikki Kovalainen. However, both team mates of these two did get into the final shootout, so comparatively speaking, these Ferrari and McLaren pilots didn’t do so well this afternoon.
Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso ran well to make P5 and P7 respectively while Sebastien Buemi did exceptionally well to get his Scuderia Toro Rosso into the top ten and into the final push for pole. The final driver to fail at making progress from Q2 was Kazuki Nakajima. The Japanese driver qualified P15, which will become P14 after Glock moves down the order.
The final run saw Sebastian Vettel waiting inside his garage for much of the ten minutes allotted for Q3. Team mate Mark Webber was on track track though and setting good times. Both Brawns were looking strong as well and Rubens Barrichello set the early pace, heading the table almost from the off. Nico Rosberg had claimed the top spot just prior to Barrichello, and while the Williams looks strong over single laps, the might of the BGP 001 is still in another league.
In the final minutes of the pole position fight, Fernando Alonso dramatically rose up the ranks and put his Renault in second, just seconds after pole position went first to Mark Webber, then to Sebastian Vettel. Jenson Button couldn’t match the pace of either Red Bull, nor could Rubens Barrichello.
This marks the second time Vettel has started from the front of the grid, the last time it happened being the 2008 Italian Grand Prix. That race showed Vettel to be cool under pressure as rain played havoc with almost every other driver. Weather forecasts for Sunday’s race are mixed in China, with some expecting rain while others saying it will pass by the Shanghai circuit. Whether it rains or not though, the Red Bulls look strong, especially so as they don’t yet have a KERS device or a fancy double diffuser.
In Malaysia we saw that both the Newey-designed cars were good, and Mark Webber was not afraid to attempt passes on other cars. In that race, the Australian had a great battle with Fernando Alonso, where Webber would pass through the corner, only to be immediately repassed by the KERS-equipped Renault. With the only driver in the top ten to have KERS being Hamilton, Webber will be pleased that most of the overtaking during the race will be on a level playing field.
With the general lack of KERS in mind, you’d be crazy to rule out another great victory from Vettel, or a maiden win for Webber. Alonso looks racey as well, although given that his car has looked to be the least competitive of the top-four qualifying teams today, the Spaniard isn’t a world champion because of sheer luck. Fernando will be hungry for the win, as will the chasing Brawns, who I suspect might be carrying a fair amount of fuel.