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Mark Webber Takes Pole for Turkish Grand Prix

Mark Webber leaving the pits at Istanbul Park

Red Bull continued their unbroken string of poles for the 2010 season in Turkey this morning, and the achievement was especially sweet for Mark Webber as it was his third pole in as many races.

It wasn’t that long ago that rumors began to surface that Kimi Raikkonen might be brought back from the WRC to take Webber’s seat at Red Bull, but Christian Horner recently rubbished those stories, no doubt because Webber, with his most recent performance (two races wins from pole in the last two events) has made the notion of his replacement by the laconic Finn look absurd.

While Webber’s team mate Sebastian Vettel appeared to be on target for pole in Q1 and Q2, it was the Aussie who got the job done at the end of today’s third session, with Vettel managing only third spot.  Vettel, who has generally been more highly rated than Webber, tried to put a good face on the situation in the post-quali press conference, by saying he was happy to be on the clean side of the track, but he was clearly disappointed, and obviously would have preferred to take the clean line from pole rather than third.

Lewis Hamilton did well to pip Vettel for second, and the young Briton was clearly pleased with his effort.  McLaren have been working overtime to close the gap to Red Bull, and at Istanbul they seem to be well within striking range.  Hamilton’s team mate, Jenson Button, took fourth slot on the grid, leaving Red Bull and McLaren in command of the front two rows.

Mercedes drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg took fifth and sixth, respectively. The two Merc pilots have been more or less evenly paced this weekend, and in Q3 they were separated by only a tenth of a second.  They trailed the front row by half second, however.  While Schumacher has insisted that Mercedes has closed the gap to the leaders, a half second gap over a single lap could grow into a 30 second gulf over the course of a race.  On the other hand, cars behave differently with full fuel loads, so it could be that Mercedes is counting on a better relative performance on Sunday.

In any event, Schumacher must be at least moderately pleased with his qualifying performance today.  It’s the first time he’s managed to out-qualify a team mate at this track, and the second time he’s out-qualified Rosberg this year.  Not coincidentally, it’s also the second time the team has used the longer wheelbase setup on the W01. While paddock wags have insinuated that the wheelbase was stretched to suit Schumi, who had struggled to overcome the terminal understeer of the W01, Rosberg has quashed this idea, insisting that he and Schumacher have nearly identical driving styles.  He likes the car’s setup to be nervous and oversteery, just as Schumacher does.

The biggest surprise of the day was Ferrari.  Felipe Massa took eighth spot on the grid, behind the Renault of Robert Kubica.  There are growing rumblings that Massa hasn’t completely recovered his form since his crash last year in Hungary, and the layoff that followed.  He’s been generally outperformed by his new team mate, Fernando Alonso.

Alonso, of course, has created his own drama this year.  He initially created the impression that he would be the driver to beat in 2010, by taking the season’s first win.  More often than not, the winner of the season opener goes on to take the title.  However, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Alonso will be one of the exceptions that prove the rule.  He’s made a number of critical errors thus far this year, which have had an impact on his results.  The most dramatic example occurred two weeks ago, in Monaco, when he crashed during FP3, which forced him to sit out qualifying, and then start the race from pit lane.  He managed to finish well, all things considered, but it was a rookie type of error, and the brass at Maranello couldn’t have been pleased.

Today, Alonso never made it out of Q2.  In his penultimate lap of the session, he braked too late going into the final complex of turns, bobbled the car, and scrubbed perhaps a half second from his pace.  He had another lap available to him, however, but he was unable to capitalize on it.  He ended up 12th on the grid, four tenths behind his team mate, Massa.  Ferrari are celebrating their 800th grand prix in the modern era (i.e. since 1950) this weekend, and this is hardly the way they expected to begin it.

Renault, on the other hand, much be very pleased with their progress.  Kubica and Renault number two, Vitaly Petrov, bracketed Massa on the grid in Q3, and on the whole the Regie is looking very competitive against the Prancing Horse.  At this point last year the Renaults appeared to be weighed down by blocks of concrete, so abysmal was their pace.  This year, however, under new management and ownership, they’re making great strides.  Ferrari, on the other hand, appears to be traveling in reverse.

Another surprise in Q3 was Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, in 10th.  Although Sauber appeared quick in pre-season testing, clearly this was the result of running low fuel loads for the benefit of any potential sponsors that might be watching.  (The effort was futile: the only brand name visible on the car thus far is Sauber’s own team logo.)  Under true qualifying and race conditions, however, the Saubers have been firmly rooted in the middle part of the grid.

Team owner Peter Sauber has been lamenting lately that the long term viability of his team is questionable unless they can overcome the funding hurdle.  The obvious catch-22, of course, is that without decent funding, Sauber is limited in its ability to improve the car; yet, unless the car is improved, Sauber will be unlikely to attract new sponsorship.  Both winning and losing can be self-perpetutating cycles.

For the most part, the bottom half of the grid provided few upsets or surprises.  Lotus continues to be the best of the newbie teams.  The HRT is still an execrable mess, a GP2 car really.  They have consistently been six seconds behind the leaders, and Turkey is no exception.  The only good news to come from the HRT camp is (a) they will secure wind tunnel time for future upgrades, and (b) they’ve severed their ties with Dallara, the third-party vendor that designed this tub of guts.

Virgin is still holding station between Lotus and HRT, but taken as a group, all three teams fall into the “moving chicane” category.  That is, the lap leaders don’t actually race against these laggards; instead, they view them as hazzards on an obstacle course.

It remains to be seen what kind of a race will unfold tomorrow.  Today’s qualifying times at the front were tightly clustered, which is normally an indication that overtaking will be non-existent among the leaders under race conditions.

Istanbul is a classic Herman Tilke track, a series of medium length straights linked by highly technical turn complexes.  Turn eight, in particular, has been forcing drivers into errors.  It’s a long sweeper with no less than four distinct apexes.  The primary overtaking zones would appear to be turns one, nine and 12, each a tight radius at the end of a straight.  Turn 12 is taken in second gear, and one and nine are taken in third.

Look for Lewis Hamilton to pull off at least a couple of dramatic moves.  He’s one of the best overtakers in the business, and the McLaren’s F-duct device gives that team’s cars a  six m.p.h. advantage on the straights, which should give them quite an edge for slipstreaming and setting up for passes.  On the other hand, Hamilton has been known to destroy tires at this venue, delaminating them on more than one occasion.  According to tire supplier Bridgestone, the fault lies not with the tires, but with the driver.

Image by fiphotos.com, licensed through Creative Commons.

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