¡Hola, bienvenidos a España! The first race of the European leg of the Championship begins at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The 4.655km track is a demanding circuit, with a faster first and second sector turns into a low speed final sector offering very little downforce. Teams must find the right package to maintain speed through the first half of the track, and traction through the slower corners. All the teams made major developments over the three week break in a hope to catch up to Mercedes’ early dominance, though the leading team remained two steps ahead. In ideal qualifying conditions, Lewis Hamilton took his first pole position at the Spanish Grand Prix just ahead of team mate Nico Rosberg, and Red Bulls Daniel Ricciardo. Despite ideal conditions, the Barcelona track was certainly biting back keeping the field very much fighting to control their cars. Some less successfully than others… *Cough* Maldonado *Cough.
Lewis Hamilton will line up in P1, for the fifth consecutive time this season (stop it Lewis). Hamilton, who doesn’t yet have the title lead, struggled compared to Rosberg for pace during the early stages of qualifying. The Briton was half a second slower than his team mate, losing considerable time in turns 7 and 10. Despite a solid performance over free practice, Hamilton complained over radio that somehow they had made the car worse. Clearly it couldn’t have been that bad, as in true Hamilton style he delivered an unbeatable lap of 1:25.232. Nico Rosberg is less than thrilled to start P2, being the only other driver to break into the 1:25s. Rosberg overall drove better throughout qualifying, setting the pace in the first two sessions. The German’s final flying lap time of 1:25.400 sat at the top of the time sheet until the final moments of the session when his team mate crossed the line.
Ricciardo appears to be the only driver to come close to challenging the Mercedes. The Australian qualifies P3, just 1.1s slower than the pole sitter and just over half a second behind Rosberg. In Q1 Ricciardo found himself struggling with for rear grip of his RB10, though took control in Q2 to finish strong. It’s been a disaster of a weekend for Sebastian Vettel, who leading into qualifying had only completed 24 laps of the circuit. Running with the chassis he used in winter testing, the RB10 stopped during FP1 due to an issue with the wiring loom, failed to run in FP2, and finally put in 20 laps on Saturday morning. During qualifying, the reigning world champion at first appeared to have ironed out the kinks with the car in Q1, lapping quicker than his team mate. Though in Q2 the order switched with Ricciardo nearly a second quicker a lap. In the final session, Vettel found himself with a box of neutrals* as he left the pit, causing the second red flag of the day. The RB10 lost second gear, changed to third, only to get stuck in fifth before finally retiring from the session. Overnight Vettel was handed a 5 place grid penalty for a gearbox change, so after qualifying a default P10, will start P15.
It was a biploar qualifying for Williams with Bottas qualifying on the third row in P4, while Massa starts from the middle of the grid in P9. Valtteri Bottas looked comfortable in his FW36 following changes to the setup made after FP2, momentarily splitting the two Red Bulls in Q2 for pace. Massa couldn’t match his team mate’s pace however and lapped towards the middle of the field, eventually qualifying P9.
Romain Grosjean is carrying all the success for the Lotus team, putting his E22 in a very impressive P5. Heading out initially on the medium compound tyres, the Frenchman struggling with understeer joining the list of drivers to run off at turn 10, affecting his lap times. Just making it through to Q2, Grosjean then contended with his E22 pulling left under braking, though easily made it through to Q3. While Lotus certainly haven’t ironed out all the issues with the E22, the teams progress in five races is rather insane. Pastor Maldonado saw the first qualifying session stopped with 13:31 remaining after sending his E22 into the inside wall on the exit to turn 3 after only completing two laps. The Venezuelan went too far left on the exit of turn three, putting two wheels on the slippery astro turf, losing control Maldonado tried to correct and ended up on the other side of the track, missing a front right wishbone and tyre. It really is a shame for the Enstone team to see their hard work and effort essentially fall to pieces by careless driving. It’s time Maldonado took a leaf out of Grosjean’s book, and matured and developed as a driver. The early session retirement means Maldonado will round off the back of the grid in P22.
The Ferrari looks to have been one of the cars to have made a significant improvement since China, though not enough to compete with the Mercedes yet. Both Ferrari’s made it through to Q3, much to the delight of the Spanish fans. Kimi Raikkonen however did manage to out qualify the Spaniard for P6, though only by 0.021s. All eyes will be on Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso at his home Grand Prix. Like the rest of the field, Alonso struggled to get grip in the F14-T. Briefly sitting in the drop zone for Q2, the Spaniard found time in the final sector to make it through, eventually qualifying P7.
Jensen Button was in the drop zone in Q1, though improved on his lap time to edge out Sauber’s Adrian Sutil. Button’s lap times, like many other drivers, suffered from poor balance and too much under steer. The Briton went on the make it through to Q3, despite struggling with the car, and qualifies P8. Kevin Magnussen didn’t set a time for Q2 after his MP4-29s power unit failed. Magnussen ran well in Q1, lapping one-tenth of a second slower than his team mate with 1:28.389. The McLaren qualifies P15, but will move up to P14 following Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a track that doesn’t really favour the Force India VJM07, which could be seen in how both Hulkenberg and Perez twitched through the back end of the circuit. Despite neither driver making it through to Q3, both Hulkenberg and Perez placed reasonably well in P11 and P12 to start P10 and P11 respectively once Vettel takes his penalty
In a flurry of flying laps at the conclusion of Q2, Daniil Kvyat was on the edge of the drop zone. The Russian’s sector 1 and 2 times were enough to see him through to Q3, which incidentally would have knocked out Fernando Alonso, though the STR9 lost time in the low speed sector 3*. As a result Kvyat qualified P13, to start P12. Vergne, who didn’t run in Q2, starts at the back of the grid. The Toro Rosso driver takes a 10 place grid penalty for an unsafe release in FP2 that saw his left rear tyre come loose from his car.
It was a rather quiet qualifying for the Sauber team with Gutierrez qualifying P14 (starting P13) ahead of Sutil in P17. Both Sauber drivers appeared to battle similar issues with their setup and grip, resulting in less than ideal lap times for the team.
The usual suspects were in the knocked out at the end of Q1, with both Marussia drivers qualifying ahead of the Caterhams. Max Chilton put in his best qualifying yet, setting a lap time of 1:29.586 which was only 1.023s slower than Sauber’s Adrian Sutil. Chilton, who dare I say is improving, qualifies P18, ahead of Bianchi’s P19. Marcus Ericsson out qualifies Kamui Kobayashi for P20 and P21.
Barring mechanical failure, Lewis Hamilton is in the best position to win from pole at the Spanish Grand Prix. Despite developments from up and down the pit wall, the Mercedes are still the dominant package, and Lewis still the fastest on a single qualifying lap. On a track like the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, qualifying is all-important as over taking is difficult. That being said, the nature of the circuit, and lack of grip from the Pirellis have seen many of the drivers struggling with their setup, particularly struggling for control through turns 7 and 10. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a safety car, which of course would shake up strategies and hopefully positions.
* Thanks for the use of your name Box of Neutrals. Very applicable for the post! https://twitter.com/BoxOfNeutrals
** Possibly slowing down for fear of the Spanish fans.