Monaco Grand Prix: Pit Stop Woes

Monaco Grand Prix: Pit Stop Woes

Nico Rosberg made it a hatrick of wins in the Principality at today’s Monaco Grand Prix after inheriting the lead during a disastrous pit stop strategy under the safety car. Following on, on worn soft compound tyres, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel fought hard to keep his newly earned second place from Lewis Hamilton. The podium result soon saw a somewhat bewildered Nico Rosberg, from an ecstatic Sebastian Vettel, and a less-than-usually-sulky Lewis Hamilton. At lights out, Hamilton was quick off the line, keeping his team mate behind him. Vettel immediately had to defend his position from Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat, who incidentally nearly ran into the back of the Ferrari for some very late braking. Daniel Ricciardo, in the other Red Bull tried to make a move around the outside of Vettel and Kvyat, though the move failed to come to pass. Ricciardo conceded a place to Kvyat through turn 1, relegating the RB11 to P4. Snaking their way through, Alonso in the McLaren and Hulkenberg in the Force India made contact through Mirabeau, resulting the the VJM08 losing it’s front wing in the barrier. Hulkenberg limped back to the pits for a new front wing, losing several positions.

Some undoubtably awkward conversations will be happening over in the Mercedes camp following a definite 1-2 Hamilton-Rosberg victory being thrown away by an unnecessary pit stop under the safety car. Hamilton had led the entirety of the race, managing to keep the brakes cool and pull a +9s lead on Rosberg at times, all before the appearance of the safety car on lap 65. Initially running both cars on a one-stop strategy, the pit wall decided to call Hamilton in for a second stop under the safety car to swap to fresh super soft tyres. A move that made no sense given that there were barely 10-laps left in the race, and almost no opportunity to over take. Without a large enough gap, Hamilton emerged from the pits behind seemingly Vettel, and after a brief investigation over position on track vs. crossing the safety car line, where he would stay. Overall it wasn’t the easiest race for the Mercedes camp.

At least one face on the podium looked pleased to be stood where he was. Sebastian Vettel clearly pushed hard from lights out, never letting the Mercedes ahead get out of reach. The Scuderia initially tried to take Rosberg with an undercut in the pit stops, but failed to pay off the move against the F1 W06. Moving up to P2 from Hamilton’s pit under the safety car, Vettel was concerned that his tyres would lose too much temperature due to the lapped cars unlapping themselves (a long an arduous process). As we went racing once more, Vettel had to defend from a Mercedes right on his gearbox. There wasn’t an opportunity for Vettel to challenge Rosberg for the top step, so the Ferrari focussed on getting his tyres back up to temperature and pulling a large enough gap to keep Hamilton at bay. A strategy that worked as the Mercedes was unable to pass. Further back in the field, Kimi Raikkonen was clearly annoyed* by the traffic through the streets. Monaco isn’t Kimi’s favourite track, though the Ferrari clearly pushed hard to fight for his position. Keeping on the tail of Ricciardo, Raikkonen closed the gap to the Red Bull. Following the safety car however, some contact between the two pushed Raikkonen back to P6.

Red Bull finished the race in a healthy P4 and P5 for their drivers, with Daniil Kvyat finishing ahead of Daniel Ricciardo. Both Dan’s drove a strong race, with Kvyat’s start off the line, and Ricciardo’s overtaking following the safety car being highlights for the two. Once the safety car had peeled in, Ricciardo was told he could attack the cars in front, and attack he did, making up two positions in the two laps following. Pulling off a rather bold move on Raikkonen, which after an investigation by the stewards saw no further action. Ricciardo had then the opportunity to challenge for a podium finish against Hamilton. However with the Mercedes remaining just out of reach, and Kvyat lapping quicker, the Aussie was told over radio if he couldn’t make the overtake to let Kvyat through. Ricciardo obliged and the team scored some solid points between them.

Force India got off to a bumpy start after contact between Alonso and Hulkenberg on the opening lap, costing the Hulk several positions. Sergio Perez however had a strong drive, showing what the Mercedes powered VJM08 is capable of around the tight streets of Monaco. Starting from P7, Checo put together a flawless race, managing a two stop strategy of softs in the middle stint, before switching back to the super softs under the safety car to build a strong challenge against Kimi Raikkonen. Unfortunately for the Mexican, the race ran out of laps, and he was unable to catch the Ferrari and settling for P7. Nico Hulkenberg  dropped to the back of the grid from lap one, though was able to claw his way back up to finish just outside of the points in P11.

A bittersweet result for McLaren-Mercedes, who managed to bring just one car to the chequered flag, that car however did manage to pick up 4 points! More than the Woking based team have collected all season. Starting from P10, and with the odds against him, Jenson Button managed the temperamental Honda power unit keeping a competitive one-stop strategy right up until the safety car. Covering their bases, he team pit Button under the safety car to finish the race on the quicker super-soft tyres as Perez and Nasr pit around him. The strategy paid off as Button finished in P8, his best result all season. Fernando Alonso was less lucky, being handed a 5-second stop-go penalty for causing the collision with Hulkenberg on the opening lap (which he unknowingly served on lap 33, and finally retiring due to a gearbox issue ten laps later.

Sauber had a somewhat anonymous race, with Felipe Nasr finishing just inside the points in P9, and Marcus Ericsson coming home in P13. Running on a one-stop, Nasr initially made up positions on Alonso and Grosjean, though was promoted to P9 through the retirements of Maldonado, Alonso, and Verstappen. Nasr came in to pit for a second time under the safety car, though failed to make up a position. Marcus Ericsson was running on a two-stop, though pitted under the safety as well. Overall, it was a bit of an underwhelming race for the team.

Bringing home a single point, the Toro Rosso garage were robbed of something to really celebrate for. Carlos Sainz, starting from the pit lane managed a one-stop strategy, pitting on lap 12 for the harder of the two compound tyres. Sainz made up several positions before the safety car, finishing a promising P9. Max Verstappen started the race with storming pace, however a slow stop for the STR10 cost the rookie some time. Verstappen quickly worked on closing the gap to get back into the points. The battle soon saw the Toro Rosso approach the back of Romain Grosjean in the E23. After a bold attempt at the hairpin, Verstappen remained behind the Lotus. Keeping on Grosjean’s gearbox, Verstappen made another attempt at the position, though failed to pull the dummy manoeuvre and misjudging the Lotus’ braking. The STR10 caught the right rear of the E23, snapping the front left wish-bone and sending Verstappen straight into the barriers at Mirabeau. Fortunately, Verstappen emerged unscathed from the hefty impact. Unfortunately, Verstappen has also been handed a grid penalty for Canada, and had points added to his super licence.

Romain Grosjean was the only Lotus to finish the race as Pastor’s E23 pulled a sicky earlier in the race. Maldonado, starting off strong, was called into retire after a brake by wire failure on lap 8. Though a short lived race, Maldonado did pick up some contact first with Massa into turn 1, and then Verstappen at Tabac. Keeping his head down, Grosjean maintained a competitive pace on a one-stop strategy, though was unable to make a points finish stick. The E23 finishing just outside in P12.

It too was an anonymous race for Williams, who, not hoping for much, finished in P14 and P15. It was all too clear that the FW37 is suited to long high speed straights, and as Monaco barely has one, the team struggled. Valtteri Bottas maintained a two-stop strategy, pitting just before the safety car to finish P14. Felipe Massa had a difficult start, having to pit on the opening lap following contact from Maldonado. The stop was a long one owing to a necessary front wing change. Massa then raced on a two-stop strategy, before pitting for a third time under the safety car to finish P15.

Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens for Manor F1 Team are undoubtably sick of the sight the blue flags, having spent the entirety of the race having them waved in their visors. That being said, both cars managed to finish the race, which in itself is an accomplishment in Monaco. Merhi finished ahead of his team mate in P16, to Stevens P17.

After a rather quiet start (or 60-odd laps), the Monaco Grand Prix did deliver it’s usual spectacle of nail biting attempts to overtake and safety car appearances. Though it wasn’t quite the victory that Rosberg would have been hoping for, the result has closed the championship points gap to just ten points. So, that’s something for Mercedes, or Vettel to think about. The championship now moves on to Montréal, for the Canadian Grand Prix. Not always the most exciting of races, though Daniel Ricciardo did take his first Formula 1 victory there last year, so personally I’m hoping for a repeat. Until then, à tout à l’heure.

– Alex

Monaco Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Monaco Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Bonjour mes amis! Et bienvenue à Monaco. The traveling circus has once again returned to the Principality for the crown jewel in the Formula 1 Calendar. The 3.340km circuit is narrow to say the least, translating to a slight advantage for a setup with shorter gear ratios. It’s a tight squeeze to the first corner, St Devote, where many a first lap incident has occurred. Turns 4 and 5 are bumpier on the street circuit, causing drivers to change their lines to avoid bottoming out down to Maribeau. Drivers must be careful not to lose the rear through Portier to be able to get the best line to go flat out through the tunnel. The chicane at the exit of the tunnel has been the scene of many an out-braking manoeuvre over the years, on occasion catching the car in front up the rear… Through to the final sector and La Rascasse. Marking the second slowest point on the track, braking and racing line are vital to run an inch away from the inside wall  Overtaking is “easiest” at the Nouvelle Chicane, and the start-finish straight where drivers can get a little extra from DRS. The unforgiving nature of Monaco translates into an all important qualifying. Focus on front wing aerodynamic grip and downforce through the corners will be vital over the weekend, giving the Renault powered teams a fighting chance. Concerns of  fuel saving and energy recovery take a backseat for this race. Some drivers will try and aim for a little bit of oversteer in the corners to make the most of being able to accelerate out from the corner sooner.

Under the threat of rain, qualifying got underway largely without incident. Track temperature was a balmy 29 C, falling to 27 C as the afternoon wore on. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton denied Nico Rosberg a hatrick of pole positions in Monte Carlo. Hamilton took the top spot with a blistering 1:15.098, relinquishing Rosberg to start from P2 on the grid. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was best of the rest, dipping into the 1:15s to secure P3 on the grid.

Mercedes were unsurprisingly strong in qualifying, though didn’t run away with the session. Hamilton’s session was slow starting, being caught in traffic from the two Lotus’, before losing aero grip through turn 11. After a front wing adjustment, the Briton was back on track, playing cat and mouse for the fastest lap. Lewis Hamilton had the advantage of choice in going out first in the final session, and remained unchallenged for the pole lap. It was a 1:15.098 on his final run on the super soft compound that did it, though the threat from Rosberg never came. Rosberg struggled to keep his F1 W06 from locking up at St Devote. A near repeat of last year spoiled Jenson Button’s lap at the end of Q2. Though thankfully this year there was no debate that the front right lock up was an accident. Unfortunately for Rosberg, his final in Q3 lap was a scrappy one. Diving into the pits, Rosberg’s penultimate lap of 1:15.440 on the super softs will slot him in to P2.

Sebastian Vettel had looked promising in the Ferrari to challenge for dark horse pole position. Despite an aggressive qualifying, the top spot remained just out of reach. Missing the apex in turn 11 spoiled the SF15-T’s final lap, making a 1:15.849 in the super soft tyres a time for P3. Sebastian however did remain 0.8s clear of team mate Kimi Raikkonen overall. Suffering from a little too much oversteer in the earlier sessions, Raikkonen lost the rear again as the chequered flag fell, relinquishing the Finn to P6 with 1:16.041 on the super softs.

Red Bull Racing are traditionally strong on the streets of Monaco, and today was no different. The high downforce, low engine wear nature of the Monaco Street Circuit Daniel Ricciardo was an easy P4, though the Australian felt he could have easily pushed for P3. After being caught in traffic and not getting the perfect run, Ricciardo’s best time on the super softs of 1:16.041 slots the RB11 into P4. Separated by a mere 0.141s, Daniil Kvyat lines up P5 just behind his team mate with a time of 1:16.182.

It was a bittersweet session for Force India, with Sergio Perez qualifying in a solid P7. Heading out early in Q2, Perez worked to get his confidence up through the narrow circuit. Paying off in the final session, Perez pulled out a 1:16.999 on the super softs. Nico Hulkenberg however was an early victim to the barriers. In the final minutes of Q1, Hulkenberg in the VJM08 lost the rear into Portier, sending the left rear into the barrier. Hulkenberg was however able to make it through to the second session, though a mistake into the final corner cost him passage into Q3. Qualifying in P13* with 1:17.193, Hulkenberg will also start on the super softs.

Toro Rosso were another team to gain advantage from the high downforce track, with both Sainz and Verstappen having strong opening sessions. Unfortunately for the Scuderia, the results on track didn’t translate in the final grid line up. Carlos Sainz challenged Perez for P7, finishing just a tenth of a second slower than the Force India in P8 with 1:16.931. The rookie has however been handed a penalty for missing the compulsory weigh bridge. So, all the hard for Sainz is undone as the STR10 will start from the pit lane. After a stormer of practice sessions, Max Verstappen’s STR10 lost steam in the final session, failing to improve from his Q2 time of 1:16.546, Verstappen will start P10 with 1:16.957 on the super softs.

Almost happy days for Lotus, with both E23s running strong. While some may have watched in bated breath as Pastor lapped blisteringly fast and close to the barriers**, the Lotus driver managed to pull ahead of his team mate early on in the session. After being caught in traffic in the final session, Maldonado was unable to keep temperatures up in the E23, and was unable to improve on his final lap, making for a qualifying position of P9 with 1:16.946. Grosjean had less luck during qualifying, locking a wheel into turn 15 on his flying lap. The small error cost Romain a slot in Q3, settling the Lotus of P11 with 1:17.007. However, due to an early gear box change, Grosjean carriers a 5-place grid penalty to tomorrow’s race.

McLarens’ MP4-30 appears to be better suited to the Monaco streets, largely due to the low engine wear. Jenson Button would have made it through to the final session had it not been for waved yellow flags in the first sector, spoiling his final flying lap. Button had a strong handle on the set up and was able to push the McLaren for pace and grip. Unable to catch a break however, his fastest Q2 time put him P12 with 1:17.093. Alonso didn’t carry any luck through to qualifying either, despite a strong start. The Spaniard, going strong was threatening to make it through to Q3. This turned out to be empty threats however as Alonso’s Honda chose to pack up in Q2, relegating him to P15 and a 1:26.632.

Williams  were surprisingly less competitive in qualifying. There wasn’t a specific issue hindering the FW37’s performance, it appeared that Monaco just didn’t suit the Williams set up. Massa couldn’t get the pace he needed out of the car to make it to the top ten shoot out, only managing a 1:17.278 for P14.Throughout the session, Bottas was unable to keep the temperatures in the tyres, and lost time due to the subsequent lack of grip. In a galant act of mate-ship, Bottas backed off his final flying lap after making a mistake on his own. By backing off, Bottas allowed his team mate through into clear track ahead to have a run a his lap. Calling it a day, the Finn dove into the pits, settling himself for P17.

Sauber opted for a different strategy in qualifying, venturing out first on the super softs while the rest of the grid (with the exception of the Manors) started on the soft compound tyres. Unfortunately for Sauber, the strategy didn’t exactly pay off, as neither Nasr nor Ericsson made it out of the initial drop zone. Felipe Nasr did manage to out-qualify his team mate in P16 with 1:18.101 on 4-lap old super softs. Ericsson will start P18, after a lap 4-tenths slower with 1:18.513.

Rounding off the back of the grid is the Manor F1 Team. Both the Manor’s made it through the circuit with enough grip and speed to qualify inside the 107% rule (1:21.884), with Stevens again out qualifying Merhi for P19 and P20 with 1:20.655 and 1:20.994 respectively.

The atmosphere of the Monaco Grand Prix is rather extravagant. The Monte Carlo streets are phenonemal. Lined with yachts and champagne off track, the streets are so narrow that it’s hard to believe a race can physically be held here. Needless to say, there is very little margin for error. To top things off, an 80% chance of the safety car keeps things interesting (like we would be bored here?). Starting from pole, it’s Hamilton’s race to lose tomorrow. Now we wait to see who can catch him.

– Alex

* Expected to start P11 due to penalties on the grid

** I may or may not have been one of them.

 

Spanish Grand Prix: Rosberg’s Race

Spanish Grand Prix: Rosberg’s Race

Nico Rosberg took home his first race victory of the season at today’s Spanish Grand Prix. A controlled race from the start, Rosberg managed a two stop strategy to finish 13 seconds clear of teammate, Lewis Hamilton, and a massive 48 seconds clear of third placed, Sebastian Vettel. Apart from a few bruised front jack-men, and a mysteriously missing rear end plate, the Spanish Grand Prix got underway smoothly. There wasn’t even a Renault powered retirement. At lights out, Rosberg stormed ahead while Hamilton was left behind due to excessive wheel spin, allowing Vettel to slip himself into P2 leading into the first corner. Already on the back foot, Hamilton had to defend his now P3 position from Bottas in the Williams. The rest of the grid snaked their way through safely, though Maldonado did receive some contact somewhere and somehow in the pack.

The Mercedes team, celebrating yet another 1-2 finish, split their drivers strategies today. Rosberg running off a two-stop started on the mediums, swapping to the hard compound tyre in the middle, before swapping back to the medium tyre in the final stint found that the F1 W06 still had a considerable amount of rear grip as he crossed the line. Hamilton, however, went for a three-stop strategy after using up too much of his front tyres chasing down Vettel in the opening laps. The Briton’s first stop was a slow one due to a reluctant left rear tyre. Coming back out behind Maldonado cost the Mercedes valuable time in chasing down the Ferrari. After Vettel’s final stop, Hamilton was able to pull enough of a lead to hold P2. Still a good 13 seconds behind Rosberg, Hamilton was told over the radio that catching his teammate would be “impossible”, settling the Mercedes for second.

The aero upgrades that Ferrari brought with them to Spain were somewhat of an anti climax, as when it came down to crunch time, Vettel wasn’t able to catch the Mercedes. Making the most of a good start, Vettel’s two-stop strategy starting on the medium and ending on the hard compound still gave the German a podium position. An irritated Vettel was held up in traffic after his final stop, making a challenge for P2 out of the question. In the other Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen nursed his medium compound tyres, only coming in to pit on lap 20. (Only Alonso in the McLaren lasted longer on the medium tyres, pitting on lap 24. But things didn’t work out too well for Alonso in the end, so it doesn’t really count). Swapping to the hard compound for the middle stint, and back to the medium compound for the final stint, Kimi was able to close the gap to less than a second ahead of fourth placed Bottas. The fight of the Finns last right down to the final corner, where Bottas remained just out of reach. Overall, a P3 for Vettel and P5 for Kimi was a strong finish for the Scuderia.

It was a positive day for Williams, with both Bottas and Massa finishing comfortably within the points. Bottas’ defending from a fresh and hungry Raikkonen was arguably the most exciting thing to happen to the team for the entirety of the race. Massa, starting from P9, made an early move on Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz to climb up to P7, later making up a further place on Daniel Ricciardo to finish P6.

Red Bull managed, not only to make an entire race distance without a Renault power failure, but to bring both boys home within the points. Daniel Ricciardo finished ahead of his teammate in P7, while Kvyat was further back in P10 after a bold move by Sainz saw the Russian lose a place.

In the weird and wonderful way that Lotus like to do things, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado provided some entertainment while both delivering a strong race performances. Starting from P11, Grosjean had a difficult race after losing fourth gear in the middle stint. Coming in for his second stop, on to the hard compound tyres, Grosjean found the E23 really had lost all grip. Overstepping the grid spot and giving the front jack-man a little nod in his, er, crown jewels. Luckily it wasn’t anything a bag of frozen peas and a bandage couldn’t fix for the jack-man, and Romain went on to finish P8. Maldonado it seems, took the Lotus sponsorship of Mad Max a little too literally, damaging his rear wing early on in the race. A longer pit stop on lap 15 saw the mechanics fix *cough* remove the broken end plate, and Pastor raced on in his E22.5 somehow matching the pace of the fully functioning E23 of Romain. Physics. Unfortunately for the team, Maldonado had to come in to retire at the end of lap 45.

… More to come

– Alex

Spanish Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Spanish Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Hola! Buenos dias amigos, bienvenidos a España. The first stop of the European leg of the championship kicks off at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The 4.655km, high downforce circuit, is made up of a high speed first and second sector, before the tight and twisty third sector. The tyre allocation for the weekend is the medium and hard compound tyre, with teams aiming for a two-stopper. Turn 1 allows for overtaking under braking before flicking the car into turns 2 and 3. The high speed turn 3 puts a lot of stress under the front left tyres, but, does allow for overtaking (if you dare). Turn 5 has caught a few out over the weekend with front lock ups as the track falls away. Traction is all important here as drivers snake their way through turns 7, 8, and 9. Opening out onto the back straight its full throttle, utilising DRS into another overtaking attempt at turn 10. Best to avoid the kerbs in the final sector to keep traction, and allow for some late braking through the chicane at turns 14 and 15. Through to the final corner, a good racing line through turn 16 can give you the edge down the long pit straight and another DRS zone.

Traditionally a hot and dry weekend, qualifying got underway in ideal conditions with Nico Rosberg managing to steal pole position for the first time this season. Hamilton was left to challenge his team mate, though will settle to start P2. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was the best of the rest, after qualifying just behind the Mercedes in P3 with 1:25.458.

It was a solid effort by Lotus this afternoon, though for the first time this season the E23s didn’t make an appearance in Q3. The team worked from the morning to find a better balance in the car and ran a different strategy in qualifying, meaning the Maldonado and Grosjean have an extra set of fresh tyres for the race. Good one. Starting on the hard compound, Grosjean and Maldonado ran for four laps before swapping to the softer medium tyre. In Q1, Maldonado shot himself up and out of the drop zone seeing him move through to the second session, followed shortly by Grosjean. Split by a tenth of a second, Grosjean’s best effort was 1:27.375 for P11, ahead of Maldonado’s 1:27.450 in P12.

McLaren have brought a number of upgrades to Spain, with the results of their efforts paying off in practice and in qualifying. Alonso on his first run in Q1 on the medium tyres set a time good enough for P5, ahead of Button in P6, seeing both the MP4-30s through to Q2. With a few minor tweaks to the front wing, Alonso and Button ventured out into Q2 for the first time this season. Button found his car pulling left under braking, costing the Briton lap time. Unable to carry the momentum through to Q3, the two McLaren’s will start P13 and P14 with Alonso in front by a tenth of a second.

Manor F1 Team line up the back of the grid with Stevens setting 1:31.200 after three laps on the medium compound to start P19. In front of his home crowd, Merhi set 1:32.038 after four laps on the medium compound for P20.

Chinese Grand Prix: Mercedes Rivalry

Chinese Grand Prix: Mercedes Rivalry

Lewis Hamilton returned to the top step of the podium after the Chinese Grand Prix. The Mercedes driver took the win from pole position, finishing ahead of his teammate, Nico Rosberg, and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. The final laps of the race were neutralised following the deployment of the safety car on lap 54. For the first time this season, 20 cars were on the grid for lights out. Hamilton was quick off the line, angling his F1 W06 to defend from Rosberg. While slightly further back, Sebastian Vettel passed Massa, immediately moving up in P3. In the other Ferrari, Kimi lined up behind the two Williams to move up on the inside of turn 2, giving himself the better line through turn 3 to pass Bottas and then Massa later in the lap. The rest of the grid snaked their way through the first corner relatively unscathed, with some contact between the two Toro Rossos.

Hamilton once again outstretched his Championship lead after being relatively unchallenged throughout the race. The Mercedes duo ran the same tyre strategy during the race, running the soft tyres for the first two stints, before swapping to medium compound tyres for the final leg. Rosberg however felt his race was compromised, complaining that his teammate was cruising in front of him. This then allowed Vettel to catch up to the Mercedes causing Rosberg to defend and use his tyres. Despite this, Rosberg still came home P2 in front of Vettel.

Ferrari had a competitive race for both Vettel and Kimi, finishing P3 and P4 respectively. It was a stormer of a first lap for both drivers, managing to pass the two Williams in the first sector. Like the Mercedes, Ferrari chose the run the soft compound tyres for the first two stints before swapping to the medium tyre for the final stint. The team didn’t however manage to make an undercut for Vettel to challenge for the win, despite pushing like hell to pull the gap. Kimi Raikkonen was on form from the get-go. Back to his old ways the Finn didn’t let up, maintaining his tyres until the final laps. However, Verstappen’s retirement on lap 54 robbed us of what would probably the most exciting battle for position in the race.

Williams were strong throughout the afternoon, maintaining a healthy position for both Massa and Bottas. However, being Ferrari’s main target for the race meant having to be on the defence from lights out. While the Williams were unable to keep their position from the Scuderia, Massa and Bottas were able to engage in some good old competitive rivalry amongst teammates. In the opening stages, Bottas made a move on Massa, moving himself up to P5, only for Massa to lay a move a few corners later. The two spent the remainder of the race in the same positions, eventually finishing P5 for Massa and P6 for Bottas after a two stop strategy.

Lotus scored their first points of the season as Romain Grosjean came home in P7. Keeping out of trouble, Grosjean managed his tyres well, running on the soft compound before running the final two stints on the medium tyre. Pastor Maldonado was not so lucky however. After a strong start, passing Felipe Nasr in the early stages, Maldonado began to show signs of braking issues after missing the entrance to the pit lane, and spinning a few laps later. Falling back in the grid, the E23 then found himself in the midst of a McLaren sandwich, simultaneously challenging Button for P13 and defending from a charging* Alonso. Maldonado’s luck ran out on lap 49 after behind rear-ended by Button, forcing the Lotus to retire on lap 52.

Both Sauber’s collected points, with Nasr finishing P8 ahead of Ericsson in P10. Ericsson lost a position early on after running wide on the opening lap and allowing the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado through. Despite some good battles for the team, the C34 was a little down on pace even with the Ferrari power. However, a well managed two-stop strategy did allow for a few battles for position for Felipe Nasr.

Red Bull continue to rue the Renault power, with Ricciardo picking up just two points for the team. Taking a somewhat unwanted leaf out of Mark Webber’s book, Ricciardo struggled with the anti-stall off the line, losing 10 places before reaching the first corner. The Renault power continued to misbehave, completely giving out in a ball of smoke on Daniil Kvyat on lap 17.

It was mixed feelings for Force India, with only one car finishing the race. Sergio Perez was unlucky to finish outside of the points in P11. Unable to maintain competitive tyres, the team switched Perez to a three stop strategy, however this failed to come off in a points finish. Nico Hulkenberg was the first retirement of the race, crawling to a halt on lap 10 after reporting over the radio that something wasn’t right with his gearbox, as it turns out there was something wrong.

In a step in the right direction, both McLaren’s finished the race. Alonso and Button both managed to engage in some competitive battles for position, albiet at the back of the grid. However, some contact with Maldonado nearly cost Button his race. Alonso eventually came home P12 ahead of Button, who finished P13.

Toro Rosso were another to have a bittersweet race, with Verstappen becoming a late retirement from a strong and points scoring finish. The rookie driver continued to race beyond his years with late braking into the corners without locking up or getting too close. Verstappen’s best battle was with Felipe Nasr in the middle stint. It was a slightly more difficult race for Carlos Sainz, losing positions after suffering a spin on the second lap. Eventually finishing outside of the points in P14. The feel good race moment goes to Manor F1 Team, with both Will Stevens and Roberto Mehri starting the race and making it all the way to the chequered flag. Stevens finished ahead of Mehri in P15 and P16 respectively.

Without a break, the championship moves to the Middle East for the Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend where the track is hot, hard, and abrasive. A nightmare for tyre management.

– Alex

* As charging as a McLaren-Honda can be this season

Malaysian Grand Prix: The Return of Ferrari

Malaysian Grand Prix: The Return of Ferrari

Sebastian Vettel broke the Mercedes strong hold by taking the chequered flag at the Malaysian Grand Prix. A superior tyre strategy and management for Vettel left Mercedes chasing the prancing horse as Hamilton and Rosberg came home second third.

With nineteen cars lining up on the grid in hot and humid conditions, Hamilton kept the lead into turn 1, while Vettel was able to hang on to second place and keep Rosberg in his mirrors. Further back in the pack there was contact between Lotus’ Pastor Maldonado and Williams Valtteri Bottas, resulting in a puncture for Maldonado. Max Verstappen lost a few places off the line, while by the time the grid had reached the hairpin Felipe Nasr caught up to Kimi Raikkonen. Nasr got his C34 a little too close for comfort to Kimi however, clipping the SF15-T’s left rear. At the end of lap 2, both Maldonado and Raikkonen limped back into the pit, with Raikkonen’s rear completely missing. Keeping things interesting and reshuffling team strategies, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson brought out the safety car after he out-broke himself and got his C34 beached in the gravel at turn 1.

… More to come

– Alex

Malaysian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Malaysian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Hello, dan selamat datang ke Kuala Lumpur! Round two of the 2015 Formula 1 Championship gets underway at the Sepang International Circuit. The 5.543km circuit runs clockwise for 56 laps, through 15 corners, and two DRS zones. The opening sequence of corners requires good engine tractability, as the right hander for turn 1 immediately snakes into a tight left-hander into turn 2. In wet conditions (and let’s face it, Malaysia is pretty wet), there are a lot of slippy racing lines. Turn 3 requires a lot of driver confidence to take the long right-hander at speed to open out to the straight leading into the heavy braking zone of Langkawi corner. The second sector is made up of a series of high speed corners, requiring a stiffer suspension set up. Sepang is a punishing track in terms of tyre wear and brake wear, with turn 7 being particularly tricky on the tyres, and turn 9 hard on the brakes. The final sector is the fastest sector of the track, with the second DRS zone on the back straight, it’s full throttle into the hairpin at turn 15. Given the number of different racing lines that can be taken, overtaking is quite common through turns 1 and 2, as well as turn 15.

Qualifying got underway in typical tropical form, wet. Q1 started dry, but with the ominous threat of rain, it wasn’t until Q2 that the skies finally opened, making the first lap of Q2 the deciding passage into Q3. After a short delay, the track had dried enough for the session to resume, as drivers wasted no time in exploring the tricky conditions. The Mercedes front row lock out has been broken for the first time in ten races, Hamilton still will start P1, but it’s Sebastian Vettel in the prancing horse that will start alongside him. Nico Rosberg is left P3, starting on the clean side of the second row.

Mercedes have yet again dominated the time sheets over the weekend, though it was Hamilton who kept his cool in the wet conditions in qualifying to secure pole yet again. Both the Mercedes were early out and early in during Q1, knowing that it was a well timed run in Q2 that would make the difference. Hamilton was not happy to be caught in traffic during Q2, complaining that he was let out too late. The Brit finished the second session in P8, though it didn’t really matter given that his Q3 lap time was 1.232s quicker than his teammate’s, and 0.74s faster than Vettel. Hamilton chose the tight line into turn 1, giving a wider entry into turn 2 for his final flying lap of the afternoon, giving him the edge over Vettel. Rosberg couldn’t find the right racing line in the wet conditions, with the F1 W06 crossing the line P3 on the inters with 1:50.299.

Sebastian Vettel repeated his 2014 effort in qualifying, once again splitting the Mercedes for P2, although this time for the Scuderia. Forever strong in the rain, Seb ran two sets of intermediate tyres, keeping himself at the top end of the time sheets. On his flying lap in Q3 to the wide line into turn 1, giving a tighter entry to turn 2, the opposite to Hamilton’s line, giving him a 1:49.908. Both Vettel and Hamilton were the only drivers who managed to dip into the 1:49s in the wet. Kimi Raikkonen’s only chance to get through to Q3 was spoiled at turn 1, and again at turn 15 by Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson. Ericsson in the C34, also on a flying lap, took a different line to Kimi in the SF15-T. Kimi caught in traffic put in a 1:42.173 on three-lap old medium tyres, settling Kimi for P11.

Red Bull Racing line up on the second and third row of the grid, an improvement from Australia. Both RB11s made it through to the final session. Daniel Ricciardo, starting P4, was just 1.242s behind Nico Rosberg’s fastest Q3 time in the wet. Red Bull are traditionally strong in the wet due to the set up of the car, more downforce means better grip through the corners, and minimises the speed advantage from the Mercedes power unit. Daniil Kvyat was momentarily in the drop zone in Q1, though his final flying lap saw him leap frog up to P6. Kvyat improved his position in the final session to start in P5, after setting a 1:51.951.

Scuderia Toro Rosso, like their big sister, ventured out on the hard compound tyres in Q1 before making the swap to the intermediates. Max Verstappen equalled his father’s best career qualifying in his second race in Formula 1. Verstappen’s 1:51.981 on the inters slot the STR9 into P6, just behind Daniil Kvyat. Verstappen was at home in the wet, taking wide lines, and being confidently late on the braking. Carlos Sainz was unlucky not to make it through to Q3, after suffering from a lock up into turn 14 giving him a handful of oversteer. The mistake cost the rookie considerable time, and as the rain began to bucket down he was unable to put in another lap. 1:43.701 puts the STR9 in P15.

Williams Martini Racing qualified somewhat out of order, with the FW37 not as nimble in the wet. In the dry opening session, both the Williams were within the top 5 of the time sheets on the medium compound tyre. Even as conditions deteriorated in Q2, Massa and Bottas easily made it through to Q3. The final 12 minutes of qualifying came down to strategy, with the team attempting to get Massa and Bottas last across the line to take advantage of the dry(ish) line appearing. In the end, a 1:52.473 for Massa, and 1:53.179 for Bottas put the two Williams in P7 and P9 respectively.

Marcus Ericsson made it through to the top ten shoot out for the first time in his career. Despite holding up Kimi Raikkonen in Q2, the Swede managed a flying lap on the inters, to see him through to eventually qualify P10 with 1:53.261. Felipe Nasr was unable to keep up his early qualifying form from Australia, a rear wheel lock-up into turn 4 spoiled Nasr’s flying lap in Q1, resulting in the Brazilian’s 1:41.308 placing him P16.

Lotus F1 Team were tipped to be a dark horse in qualifying, with the E23 expected to qualify between P6 and P8. Both Grosjean and Maldonado made it out of Q1. Grosjean had a little twitch onto the back straight of his final flying lap in the opening session. Maldonado had a slightly bigger moment into turn 1, though still managed to set the fastest sector 1 time in Q1… The E23 has never tested with wet weather tyres, so the team made the cautious decision to go out on the full wets in the opening stint of Q2, then swapping to the intermediates. Unfortunately neither Grosjean or Maldonado were able to complete their flying laps on the intermediate tyres. Grosjean’s 1:41.209 was enough to see him through to the top ten shoot out, though Maldonado’s 1:42.198 just missed out, qualifying P12. Grosjean went on in Q3 to qualify P8 with 1:52.261 on the inters.

With the rain failing just a little too late for Force India, Nico Hulkenberg managed 1:43.023 on his one and only run in Q2 for P13. Sergio Perez gave it all he had in the back end of Q1, needing to find a few hundredths on his lap to ensure his passage to Q2. A well put together time of 1:41.036 saw the Mexican squeeze his way through. In Q2 however as the fast approaching rain began to fall, the one and only flying lap Perez was able to put in on the medium compound tyres was 1:43.469, only enough for P14. Perez’s qualifying was somewhat compromised by being the last car out in Q2, meaning he was unable to find a clear piece of track.

McLaren continued to struggle, as both failed to make it out of Q1 for the second round running. With the MP4-30 still down on power, both Button and Alonso put in 8 laps each on the medium compound tyre, but remained in the drop zone for the entirety of the session. On their final flying lap, two duo gave it everything, but the Honda power unit could only deliver enough for Button to qualify with 1:41.636 in P17, ahead of Alonso’s 1:41.746 for P18.

Manor F1 Team will race at the stewards discretion tomorrow** after Roberto Mehri failed to make the 107% rule (1:46.218s), missing out by 0.4s. Will Stevens wasn’t able to run at all in qualifying, with a fuel system issue from FP3 keeping him in the garage for the rest of the afternoon. Stevens was able put in laps inside the 107% cut off time in the earlier practice sessions, proving that the Manor cars have the pace to keep up, they just need the chance to do so.

Race day strategy is completely dependant, yet again, on the race. The abrasive nature of Sepang is ridiculous on tyre wear, so a dry race could even be a three stopper. If the rain falls*, this will benefit the Red Bulls’ and Toro Rossos’, closing the gap to the Mercedes power. Williams and Force India struggled the most in the wet conditions. So, Sunday’s race is Hamilton’s to defend and Rosberg’s to recover, personally I’ll be looking at what the Ferraris’ do now they’re within reaching distance of the Mercedes. Forever keeping my fingers crossed for a wet race in Malaysia, see you tomorrow.

– Alex

* Turns the circuit into a river

** Manor received approval from the FIA at 19:37 local time Saturday evening to start the race.

Australian Grand Prix: Another One Bites The Dust

Australian Grand Prix: Another One Bites The Dust

Lewis Hamilton takes an early lead on the 2015 season after taking the top step of the podium at the Australian Grand Prix. The reigning world champion walked it home around the park from pole position. His teammate, Nico Rosberg did all he can to keep Hamilton in his sights, but never managed to lay a challenge for the lead. Sebastian Vettel took out the final step of the podium for the Scuderia.

It was a considerably smaller grid for the season opener, with Bottas being ruled out due to a back injury following qualifying, Daniil Kvyat suffering from gearbox failure on his way to the grid, and Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren flat out giving up before the formation lap was even underway. So at lights out, it was 15 cars that snaked their way through turn 1. Hamilton flew off the line, with Rosberg leading the hunt. Further back on the grid, Lotus’ Romain Grosjean crawled off the line with a cut in power to the Mercedes engine, while Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz moved himself up to P6 before the first corner, slotting in behind Kimi Raikkonen.

The two Ferraris’ went into turn 1 side-by-side, with Vettel riding the kerb leaving very little room for Kimi to move. The Finn backed out of the corner, but clipped Sainz on his way through, leaving the STR10 twitching to keep traction. Sauber’s Felipe Nasr got caught up in the action as Kimi’s front right tyre made contact with the C34, and in turn clipping the left rear of Pastor Maldonado’s E23. Clearly coming off worst out of the opening lap altercation, the E23 lost rear traction, spinning counter clockwise and careering backwards into the barriers out of turn 2. An unlucky start to the season for the number 13 driver. The stranded E23 triggered the release of the safety car, and a flurry of action in the pit lane as strategies reshuffled.

Mercedes essentially were going through the formalities at Albert Park, with the 1-2 finish for the team remaining unchallenged. Starting on the soft compound tyres, Hamilton was first of the pair to box on lap 26 for the medium compound tyre, with Rosberg following suit one lap later. Rosberg maintained the gap to his teammate at around 1.6s during the second stint of the race, though neither driver pushed each other in a bid to save fuel. Rosberg suffered from harsher tyre degradation compared to his teammate, fearing that he may have to pit for a second time towards the back end of the race. Given that the Silver Arrows had more than a 30-second lead on the rest of the pack, Rosberg’s tyre woes didn’t make much of a difference.

The Scuderia have emerged as an early challenger to Mercedes, with Sebastian Vettel putting the SFT-15 into P3. Starting from P4, Vettel managed to jump Felipe Massa’s FW37 during the pit window. As Massa came in for the prime tyre on lap 21, the Scuderia decided to keep Vettel out and push to make the gap in front of the Williams. Four laps later, the German pulled in for his turn to swap to the prime tyre, emerging a solid distance ahead of Massa and retaining his potential podium finish. The challenges piled up from lights out for Kimi Raikkonen becoming the final DNF of the race. Firstly, the Finn was forced to back out of the corner on the opening lap by his new teammate, resulting in his SFT15 picking up front wing damage and losing considerable downforce. The early contact then saw Kimi fall down the order from a healthy P5, to a struggling P8. The Ferrari did however manage to take a storming Carlos Sainz through turn 9, stepping out and around the Toro Rosso to move up into P7 on lap 8. Powering through, Kimi’s first stop on lap 17 for a new set of the option tyres cost him even more time and grid positions as a stubborn left rear wheel nut refuse to tighten. Finally on lap 43, the Finn came in for his swap to the medium compound tyre, but yet again it was the left rear causing havoc for the team. Kimi was halfway down the pit lane before realising that something was wrong, with the left rear having not been properly secured, he was forced to pull over and switch off the engine at turn 3.

Williams were unlucky not to reach the podium in today’s race, with their pit stop strategy being the only weak point. Felipe’s swap to medium tyre was smooth and to plan to keep the FW37 in contention for third place, however it was back on track with Massa being caught behind Sainz’ Toro Rosso that allowed Vettel to pull the large enough gap from the Williams in the pit window. Nevertheless, Massa picked up some early points, finishing a comfortable P4. Valtteri Bottas was ruled out of starting the race due to a back injury picked up during Saturday’s qualifying session. Bottas failed the second of two fitness tests enforced the the FIA to ensure driver safety, leaving the Finn to watch on from the garage on Sunday.

For something completely different, Sauber decided to move their battles from the court room to the race track, with both drivers picking up points. Already more than the Swiss team achieved in the entirety of the 2014 season. Rookie Felipe Nasr without question took out drive of the day, taking an early advantage from P8. The Brazilian made light work of his fellow rookie, Carlos Sainz on lap 4, slipping the C34 in front of the STR10 on the start finish straight. Nasr then passed a slightly off-pace Daniel Ricciardo for P5, paving the way for the rest of the race. It was clear from qualifying that Nasr would be a threat to the mid-field following practice and qualifying, but it was hardly expected that the rookie would spend his debut F1 race defending from a hungry honey badger. Nasr not only managed his tyres, but kept the C34 competitive to cross the line P5. Teammate Marcus Ericsson picked up valuable points in P8, after a strong but tough race for the Swede. Running wide and through the gravel in the final stint of the race, Ericsson pit for a set of the option tyre, rejoining behind Perez and Sainz. On fresher tyres, Ericsson moved up behind Sainz, managing to outbrake the now struggling STR10 on lap 56, slipping down the inside to take P8.

Daniel Ricciardo was left to bring it home for the Red Bull team after Daniil Kvyat retired on his way to the grid. Kvyat, for his first race in the big sister team, lost drive on his out lap after failing to select fifth gear in the RB11. The gearbox failure forced the Russian to park up before even reaching the grid, joining Bottas, and soon Magnussen as a DNS. Homeboy Daniel Ricciardo delivered a strong race despite early set backs. The RB11 had considerably less power in the opening stint, resulting in the Aussie conceding several places in the opening laps. However, as the race wore on, and temperatures warmed, Ricciardo stalked Carlos Sainz for P6, and began the hunt on Nasr for P5. Caught up in the battle, Raikkonen gave Ricciardo something to think about as the Red Bull driver managed to keep the Ferrari in his mirrors while keeping the gap to Nasr at 0.8s. Going to the end on the medium tyre after pitting on lap 24, Ricciardo didn’t quite manage to make a move on Nasr stick. Though given the challenges the RB11 has already faced this season, a P6 finish will keep Ricciardo smiling until Malaysia.

Force India decided to split their drivers’ strategies, having Perez start on the medium compound tyre, while Hulkenberg got off the line on the softs. Nico Hulkenberg managed to keep his VJM08 out of trouble to finish a quiet P7. Stopping on lap 23 for the medium compound, and then again for a final time on lap 46 for the soft compound to go to the end. The Hulk noticeably challenged Max Verstappen before the STR10’s untimely retirement. Sergio Perez drew slightly more attention during the race, playing cat and mouse with his former teammate at McLaren, Jenson Button. After a few failed attempts to make a move stick from the back end of the grid, Perez moved up on the inside of Button on the inside of turn 3. As Button refused to yield the two made contact, leaving the Mexican in a spin and in P13. Somehow not noticing the shower of bodywork rain down upon him, Perez radioed that he hadn’t attracted any damage and resumed the chase to Button. It wasn’t until Kimi’s retirement from the race that Perez managed to pace the McLaren. In a cruel set of circumstances, Button was in contention for a single point in P10, before Perez, on fresher tyres took Button on lap 44.

Toro Rosso picked a brilliant pair of rookie drivers, with both Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen delivering drives beyond their years. Sainz finished somewhat out of position in P9 following an excruciatingly slow stop on lap 26. Like Raikkonen, it was the left rear that caused the issue, refusing to loosen. The Spanish rookie sat patiently* as the pit crew tried to get the Toro Rosso moving. Max Verstappen was reluctantly added to the list of DNFs for the race following a power unit failure on lap 33. The 17-year-old rookie had driven incredibly to make a later stop back to the option tyre on lap 33. Being on the stickier, quicker rubber, and being considerably lighter on fuel load, Verstappen emerged in P9 eager and ready to carve his way back to his P5 taken by Raikkonen. Unfortunately, the Renault power unit had other ideas, billowing smoke and forcing Verstappen to park up at the entry to the pit lane. It was a valiant effort by the rookie, and a strong points finished spoiled by reliability issues.

McLaren Honda were the unlucky lot, with Jenson Button being the only car to finish outside of the points.
Button fought valiantly to keep the McLaren going, having not even completed a race distance yet this season. Managing the tyres from lap 1, Button held off Perez for almost the entirety of the race, briefly beating the Mercedes power with Honda power. Eventually finishing P11, it was a bitter sweet result for the team who, deciding the treat the race like another test session, were not expecting to even finish the race, but to come so close to scoring a point and losing it have a lot of positive and negatives to take away from Melbourne. Kevin Magnussen was another DNS with the MP4-30’s Honda power unit packing it in before the race began.

After a strong practice and qualifying for Lotus, it was a low blow as both drivers were DNC for the race. The opening lap scramble saw Pastor Maldonado get caught up in a tangle that wasn’t his fault to retire 10 seconds into the race. Meanwhile an immediate and inexplicable loss of power to Romain Grosjean’s E23 saw the Frenchman crawl back to the garage to retire at the end of the first lap. A short and frustrating race for the Enstone team.

While the 1-2 Mercedes finish was, *cough* somewhat predictable, the Australian Grand Prix lived up to it’s anticipation. It was the rookie drivers that delivered the best on track action, with the likes of Felipe Nasr and Max Verstappen particularly standing out. This season promises to deliver challenges for the “not-so-underdog-but-kind-of-now-an-underdog” McLaren, and anyone powered by Renault power, as well as chances for the rookie drivers to hold their own against race vetrans. The championship now moves in two weeks to the hot and humid Sepang International Circuit for the Malaysian Grand Prix, until then, ‘Ooroo!

– Alex

* Silently screaming expletives.

Images Courtesy of Lotus F1 Team.

Australian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Australian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

G’day maaate, welcome to the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship in Melbourne Australia. It’s the 20th year running that F1 returns to the 5.303km circuit at Albert Park. Running clockwise for 58 laps, Albert Park is a brilliant mix of big braking points and smooth running corners. At an average speed of 213 km/h, this one is considered a medium speed track with “only” 65% of a lap spent at full throttle. The hard braking zones, with turn 13 being the heaviest offer a good opportunity to recharge the ERS. Brakeware has a stronger focus in strategy, with teams’ favouring a higher downforce set up carrying an advantage. Doing it’s best to imitate the outback, the bumpy and dusty Albert Park circuit is a demanding track, with overtaking even with DRS proves to be difficult. Turn 3 appears to be the best opportunity for overtaking, but expect some challenges out of the final corner. The tyre allocation for the weekend is the soft, option, and medium, prime Pirelli compounds, with a two-stop strategy being expected. Track temperatures were a warm 38°C for the beginning of Q1, dropping by 10°C by the time Q3 rolled around. The opening qualifying session saw Lewis Hamilton set 1:26.327 to steal pole position by 0.594s, ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg. Williams’, Felipe Massa took P3 with a 1:27.718, indicating that the Grove based team remain the best of the rest compared to the Silver Arrows.

Mercedes refuse to loosen their strong hold on the championship, with the F1 W06 consistently setting a quick pace over the weekend. As the session begun both Hamilton and Rosberg were slippy on the medium compound tyre, with the rear occasionally stepping out. After a few laps were on the board however, the tyre temps and pressures settled in, and Mercedes quickly took their familiar spot at the top of the timesheets for Q1 and Q2.
Hamilton was unchallenged in the final session, setting his 1:26.327 with more than 5 minutes to spare. Rosberg did a bit of maintenance to the grass in Q3, running wide in turn 15 after an unusual lock up in the middle of the apex. With no time set for the German, the pressure was on for Rosberg to deliver a challenge for pole. Unfortunately, Rosberg’s 1:28.510 was comparatively slow to his teammate, settling to line up P2 ahead of tomorrow’s race.

Williams F1 Team played leapfrog with the two Ferraris’ throughout qualifying, though once again held their own in the final moments of the session. Felipe Massa ran a good session in the FW37, remaining just behind the Mercedes both on the medium and soft compound tyres. It was with apparent ease that Massa set a 1:27.718 for P3. Valtteri Bottas took the role of Flying Finn in qualifying, being the stronger of the two in Q1 and Q2, slipping comfortably into P2 in between the Silver Arrows. Painfully, it was Q3 that didn’t come together for Bottas after suffering a lock up on turn 1 of his first flying lap, followed by massively missing the apex of turn 3. After several more attempts to put a lap together, it was the bumpy entry of turn 16 that mocked the FW37, sending Bottas wide and spoiling what was a strong lap. As a result, the Williams is slightly out of expected position in P6 with 1:28.087.

Ferrari must get up very early in the morning as the Scuderia’s haven’t looked this strong since the 2008 season. The SF15-T was not only quick, but maintained bite throughout the session, remaining competitive in the latter end of Q3 where the Ferrari fell away last season. The highly anticipated arrival of Sebastian Vettel to partner Kimi Raikkonen makes the driver line up a fan favourite, and it would appear that Seb’s cheek is well matched with Kimi. “Sebastian, what kind of Ferrari have you got ahead of tomorrow’s race?”, “A red one…”. Neither Vettel nor Raikkonen are strangers to the sharp end of the timesheets, with a P4 and P5 for the team, a podium definitely isn’t out of reach.

Local hero and Red Bull’s new front man, Daniel Ricciardo received cheers every time he crossed the line from the Webber Grandstand. After suffering from an early engine change on Friday, Ricciardo recovered to run consistently on Saturday in Q1 on the medium compound tyres, before flinging himself into P6 to see him pass through to the top ten shoot out. Shaving a few tenths off the Q2 time, Ricciardo set a 1:28.087 as the checkered flag fell briefly putting the Aussie in P3, before being bumped down to a relatively competitive P7. Daniil Kvyat was last out in Q1, making his first appearance with less than three minutes remaining in the session. It was a disappointing first outing for Kvyat stepping up into the Red Bull seat as handling issues and an over enthusiastic throttle that had plagued FP3 carried through into Saturday afternoon. Unable to make the cut, Kvyat battled the RB11 for 1:29.070, an improvement from 1:30.402 in Q1, though still considerably off the pace. The Russian lines up P13 for tomorrow’s race.

The Toro Rosso’s were another surprise challenge in qualifying with both drivers finishing inside the top ten after Q1. Carlos Sainz’s pace in the STR10 impressed in in qualifying, despite spinning at turn 4 after dipping a toe on the grass. Sainz controlled the Renault powered Toro Rosso to put together flying lap after flying lap. It was no surprise therefore that the rookie made it through to the top ten shoot out to piece together a lap of 1:28.510 on the soft tyres. Just 0.2s off big brother, Daniel Ricciardo, Sainz lines up P8. The youngest on the grid had a lot to prove in his debut qualifying session, to which he delivered. Max Verstappen was similarly quick on the pace in Q1, with his performance leaving Helmut Marko unphased. However his session came to an early end after complaining over the radio that there was something behind his right shoulder, the rookie held the STR10 together s best he could for a 1:28.868, just missing out on the top ten shoot out in P12.

The new and improved Lotus F1 Team were a happy addition to the top ten shoot out, proving that the switch to Mercedes power at the end of last season was a good decision. Although Maldonado had to battle with understeer, and then oversteer on his flying lap in Q1, the Venezuelan kept it together and soon the E23 behaved. Both Grosjean and Maldonado were quicker than the Red Bulls and Toro Rosso’s in Q2, indicating the the E23 is more than ready to put up a strong fight. The Enstone based team appeared to suffer most from the 10°C drop in track temperature, losing pace in the back end of Q3. So it was P9 for Grosjean and P10 for Maldonado with 1:28.560 and 1:29.480 on the soft compound tyres.

Sauber’s weekend so far has been a touch dramatic, with car issues during practice and you know, the whole issue of seemingly having 3-drivers signed to a 2-seat team… Putting the paddock drama to one side, Felipe Nasr was something of a dark horse on Saturday, out-qualifying his teammate by 5 grid positions. In the final moments of Q2, Nasr set a competitive flying lap of 1:28.800, briefly seeing the rookie inside the top ten. Although it was the two Lotus’ final effort that bumped the Sauber down to P11. Markus Ericsson’s new outfit is at least, more competitive than a Caterham… Unfortunately for the Swede the best the C34 could offer him didn’t even dip below the 1:30s. A difficult final flying lap for Ericsson put together 1:31.376 for P16.

Force India were absent for the Q1 and Q3, resulting in both Hulkenberg and Perez being literally absent in Q3. Despite having the advantage of a Mercedes power-unit, the VJM08 lacked both pace and bite into the corners. In an uneventful Q1, Hulkenberg and Perez managed to remain out of the dropzone to progress to the second session. And while it was a improvement on both times, 1:29.208 for Hulkenberg and 1:29.209 for Perez were the best the duo could muster for P14 and P15 respectively. In an effort to find a silver lining, at least Hulkenberg and Perez appeared consistent with each others lap times, even if it was three seconds off the pace to the leaders.

The issues keep on coming for McLaren Honda, with Button and Magnussen rounding off the grid. Considerably down on power, Button and Magnussen posed little threat even to Sauber, only managing 1:31.422 and 1:32.037 respectively, a massive 1.5s off the pace to progress through the grid. Manor F1 Team have put in an incredible effort to make it to the season opener on Australia. Unfortunately for the team, a software issue has plagued Manor over the course of weekend, resulting in yet another session that both drivers’ were forced to sit out. It was therefore, “no time set” for Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi in qualifying.

So Mercedes remain in a league of their own ahead of tomorrow’s race, while a surprising battle between the Williams and Ferrari is emerging. It remains to be seen if Ferrari can hold out to make the distance competitively, or if the Scuderia will fall short on the demanding circuit. Williams will no doubt be a worthy adversary, being strong both in terms of pace and aero setup. Further back in the grid, we can expect battles between the Red Bulls, Lotus, and Toro Rossos for a tantalising cocktail of vetran and rookie skill. McLaren, aside from Manor have the biggest challenge ahead of them, with their aim likely to be to finish the race without sacrificing an engine. Adding to excitement, the locals predict rain for race day, but it is Melbourne in March, could be either blazing sunshine of absolute downpour… Either way, the season opener will be top show.

– Alex

Ps. It’s good to be back.