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Vettel Grabs Pole at Bahrain

Sebastian Vettel - number one on the grid in Bahrain

Well, the cat is finally out of the bag: the F1 teams of 2010 have shown their true speed in qualifying trim.  There weren’t that many surprises, with the Big Four teams (Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes) slotting neatly into the first eight grid positions, with Renault’s Robert Kubica and Force India’s Adrian Sutil snagging ninth and tenth, respectively.

Sebastian Vettel took top honors, with a pole that edged out runner up Felipe Massa by a mere 0.141 seconds.  Fernando Alonso, who seemed subdued in the post qualifying press conference, trailed Vettel by half a second.  Vettel seemed a but surprised by his pace, but clearly he seems in position to take up where he left off at last year’s season finale, which he won handily.

No doubt Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber is also a bit stunned by the young German’s pace.  Webber qualified sixth, more than a second slower than Vettel.

Much of the early pit gossip in Bahrain has centered on McLaren’s top secret venting system (which routes air from a tiny scoop above the car’s nose, through channels in the cockpit and dorsal fin, and finally through a duct in the rear wing, with the overall effect of “stalling” airflow over the wing, thus reducing drag on long straights), and rival teams have been worried that it might be a replay of last year’s double-diffuser scenario, which saw Brawn holding all the cards for the first half of the season.  McLaren are clearly a bit off the pace, however, their new gadget not withstanding.  Hamilton and Button trailed Vettel by 1.113 and 1.571 seconds, respectively.

Nico Rosberg, in fifth slot, was the quicker of the Mercedes pair, and if there’s any surprise there, it’s that the young German has been consistently outpacing his illustrious team mate, Michael Schumacher, during all of this weekend’s practice and qualifying sessions.

Schumacher has lamented that it’s taking him a bit of time to get up to speed on a single-lap basis.  This is due, in part, to the inherent handing of the car.  The Mercedes, because of heavier fuel loads and narrower front tires, is prone to understeer, and Schumi prefers a car that is on the neutral-to-oversteer side of the continuum.  But there’s only so much one can blame on the car, which, after all, is the same equipment that Rosberg is using.

Schumacher believes he should be in consistent form under race conditions, however.  Race consistency has always been one of his strengths, and frankly, it hasn’t been one of Rosberg’s.  During the past couple of seasons at Williams, the younger German often showed pace during practice and qualifying, but then failed to capitalize on his position during the race.

Jenson Button trailed his new team mate Lewis Hamilton by more than four-tenths of a second, which came as a surprise to no one.  Button claimed that he thought something was wrong with his car, but whatever it was, it’s likely that Hamilton was contending with the same issue.  Hamilton said that the car lacks downforce, so while the team might have found a gimmick to reduce drag, apparently they haven’t solved all of their aero problems.

It appears that the Big Four have clustered into two sub groups, in terms of performance, with Red Bull and Ferrari at the top, followed by Mercedes and McLaren.  The latter two teams seem pretty evenly matched on pace.  In fact, the McLaren and Mercedes duos were in a cluster in fourth through eighth slots on the grid, being split only by Mark Webber, in the Red Bull.

The rest of the grid is neatly grouped, for the most part, with the second tier of established teams taking up Q2 positions, and the newbies filling up the Q1 slots.  The slowest of the slow is HRT, with Senna and Chandhok trailing pole by an amazing 9.139 and 10.803 seconds, respectively.  At this pace, HRT is slow even by GP2 standards, which is surprising, considering that the GP2 spec cars are built by Dallara, the same company to which HRT (Campos) outsourced their chassis design.  Ten seconds is a huge difference by F1 standards. A quick driver approaching an HRT from behind is apt to think that the car ahead of him is suffering from a mechanical glitch of some kind.  While this disparity in pace wasn’t unusual during the pre-qualifying and customer car eras of decades ago, the current crop of drivers might find it problematic, initially.

While qualifying didn’t generate any real surprises, race day might be different.  There are still a number of question marks hanging over the event.  Perhaps first and foremost is the issue of tire performance.  Drivers will be required to make at least one tire change, so that both the primary and the option tires are used, but if tires begin blistering or graining early (the options are said to go off after a mere three laps), then we might actually see more than one stop by some teams.  Tire management will be key, especially during the early laps, when everyone will be on full tanks.  The Q3 drivers will start the race with their quali tires, so if they’ve overcooked them during qualifying, their opening race laps, when their cars will be laboring with heavy fuel loads, will be challenging.

It will also be interesting to see how driving styles come into play.  During the refueling era, teams often relied on pit stop strategy to gain positions, rather than risking on-track overtaking.  With fewer and shorter pit stops, however, drivers will be forced to overtake the old fashioned way if they want to get ahead.  This means that some drivers might have to up their game, in terms of aggressiveness.  Unfortunately, aggressive driving can be hazardous to the health of one’s tires.  So the question remains: will we see more on-track action, or will races become even more parade-like than before?

In the end, it’s fair to assume that drivers who are both quick and savvy will come to the front of the pack.  Certainly, Schumacher should be among these drivers, in time, even if his pace thus far has been less than sensational.  Alonso is a clever driver, but he also has a tendency to be overly aggressive when he smells blood.  He’s known for being a “big picture” driver, however, so we should expect him to adapt well to the new conditions.  Lewis Hamilton usually wrings the best from his car, but he also runs deep into the turns, braking late and hard, which can be hard on the tires.  He mind find that he has to adjust his style in race conditions more than his team mate Jenson Button will; Button is known for being ultra-smooth, if perhaps not as quick as his fellow champion.

Sunday’s race should answer these questions, and more, and should give us an inkling of how the season might pan out in general.  While most of the paddock pundits have been waxing eloquent about how competitive this season will be, even during highly competitive seasons a pecking order eventually becomes manifest.  At this stage, it looks as though Red Bull and Ferrari have the edge.  The season will be eight months long, however.  In that amount of time, a team’s performance can change, as we saw with McLaren last year.

Smart money might be on Vettel to take top spot on the podium tomorrow.  While he hasn’t proven himself to be a master of overtaking, he’s very quick, and he’s proven that he can take care of his equipment without sacrificing much pace, which is exactly what’s needed in the current environment.

Image by tymobile, licensed through Creative Commons.

Pos. Driver Team Time Gap
1 Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:54.101 0.00
2 Massa Ferrari 1:54.242 0.141
3 Alonso Ferrari 1:54.608 0.507
4 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.217 1.113
5 Rosberg Mercedes 1:55.241 1.140
6 Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:55.284 1.183
7 Schumacher Mercedes 1:55.524 1.423
8 Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.672 1.571
9 Kubica Renault 1:55.885 1.784
10 Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:56.309 2.208
11 Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:55.330 1.229
12 Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:55.653 1.552
13 Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:55.857 1.756
14 de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.237 2.136
15 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:56.265 2.164
16 Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.270 2.169
17 Petrov Renault 1:56.619 2.518
18 Alguesuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:57.071 2.970
19 Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.728 5.627
20 Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:59.852 5.751
21 Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 2:00.313 6.212
22 di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 2:00.587 6.486
23 Senna HRT-Cosworth 2:03.240 9.139
24 Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 2:04.904 10.803
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