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Vettel Snags Pole in Shanghai, Webber Completes Front Row

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel charged to his third pole in four races in Shanghai on Saturday.  It was  an impressive performance, especially since the young German hadn’t been at the top of the time sheets during any of the free practice sessions.  He lines up alongside team mate Mark Webber, whom he pipped by more than two-tenths of a second, with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in third.

There had been much speculation that McLaren might dominate the front row of the grid, as they’d been quick throughout practice.  Their F-duct device, which stalls drag on the rear wing on the straights, had been thought to give them an edge.  Moreover, the McLarens have Mercedes power, which still seems to be the powerplant to beat this year.  Both McLaren and the factory Merc squad dominated Friday’s practice sessions.

But in the event, the best the McLaren boys could muster was fifth (Jenson Button) and sixth (Lewis Hamilton), even with the much vaunted F-duct in use.  Hamilton had been protesting that the F-duct doesn’t really give them that much of an advantage.  He indicated that it primarily helped them compensate for their weakness in the high downforce sections.  Perhaps he’s right.

This was also the third time in four races that Jenson Button has bettered his more highly-regarded team mate in qualifying.  It was widely assumed that Hamilton would bury his new partner, but on a single-lap basis, that certainly hasn’t happened.  Moreover, Button has already scored a win for the team this year, something which Hamilton has yet to do.

Fernando Alonso continued the trend he developed at the outset of the season, by outpacing team mate Felipe Massa, who slotted in seventh on the grid.  Massa sat out a good portion of last season after his accident at Hungary, and it’s possible that he’s still finding his form, although Massa himself has said that he’s already back at 100%.

Massa was able to shine during the past three years by generally outperforming his perhaps over rated (and overpaid) Ferrari partner, Kimi Raikkonen.  Alonso is as very different animal from Raikkonen, however.  The Spaniard is as driven and tenacious as the Finn is laconic and laid back.  Massa should have his hands full in trying to keep up.  While there was effectively no team leader in the Massa-Raikkonen line-up, it could be that Alonso very quickly becomes the de facto number one.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the top ten was the gap between the Mercedes boys, Nico Rosberg (fourth) and Michael Schumacher (ninth).  While it’s beginning to seem like the new normal to see Schumi outqualified by his team mate (something that used to happen only rarely), at Shanghai the gap was greater than one might have expected.  In all three quali sessions, Rosberg outpaced Schumacher by six or seven tenths, which is substantial.  Moreover, Schumacher was more than a full second off the pole-sitter’s pace, which must have him feeling frustrated indeed.

At previous venues, Schumacher offered marginal excuses for being edged out by Rosberg, saying, for example, that he’d been balked by a slower driver, or that his tires had gone off.  In this instance, however, he offered no excuse other than the fact he couldn’t seem to find adequate speed in corner exits.  He’s running a setup that’s almost identical to Rosberg’s, so if it’s a setup issue, it’s clearly something that bothers Schumacher but leaves Rosberg unfazed.

The top ten group was rounded out by Renault’s Robert Kubica (eighth) and Force India’s Adrian Sutil (tenth).  Their top-ten appearances on the grid are becoming a habit.  Both of these drivers continue to impress, and in both cases one suspects that the drivers are flattering the cars.

Williams pilot Rubens Barrichello was the quickest driver outside the Q3 group.  He grabbed eleventh spot, once again outpacing his rookie team mate Nico Hulkenberg, who was  in sixteenth.  Barrichello is on a one year contract.  Frank Williams hired him to mentor Hulkenberg, who is being groomed (theoretically) to be another Lewis Hamilton.  The two young drivers have similar pedigrees.  But thus far, Hulkenberg has failed to set the paddock alight.  It could be that he’ll mature into something special, but for the moment it’s clear that Barrichello is very much the lead driver.

One suspects that Barrichello finds this situation bitter-sweet.  When the Brazilian was at Ferrari, he was always in Michael Schumacher’s shadow.  When he moved to Honda, he had rough parity with Jenson Button, a situation that ultimately tilted in Button’s favor when the team morphed into Brawn.  Now, Barrichello is clearly in a dominant position within the team, but once again he’s in an underperforming car, which was the same obstacle he faced during most of his time at Honda.

If Frank Williams is smart (and no one has ever accused him of being a dullard), he’ll extend his contract with Barrichello, assuming the aged Brazilian isn’t eying retirement.  Williams needs more than just a quick driver; he needs a good development driver as well.  Barrichello is currently the most experienced driver on the grid, and surely all his years working with Ross Brawn at Ferrari and Honda/Brawn taught him something about development.

The mid-field was predictably filled by the second tier teams, with Renault, Williams, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Force India all locked in a fairly close competition.  All of these teams are struggling for “Best of the Rest” honors, which is to say the best team outside of the Big Four (Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull).  Currently, it looks as though Renault (at least in the hands of Robert Kubica) has the best claim to this title.

The bottom of the grid, i.e. the seven cars eliminated in Q1, once again was comprised of the three third tier (or newbie) teams, Virgin, Lotus and HRT, plus one other car.  In this case, the ignominious “plus one” designation fell to Tonio Liuzzi, who is being consistently outperformed by team mate Adrian Sutil this year.

One suspects that if Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil continue to impress, they’ll soon be on the shopping lists of the Big Four teams.  There have already been rumors that Ferrari is looking at Kubica as a potential replacement for Massa.  Massa has exhibited a strong growth curve at the team, but it’s possible that they feel he’s plateaued.

I’m not sure how much sense this makes, however.  Massa is still quick enough to win races, and the team’s greatest success came during the Schumacher-Barrichello era, when those two drivers fell into de facto team leader and number two roles.  Schumacher became the team’s focal point, with Barrichello serving as backup.  While this arrangement wasn’t always harmonious, it was hugely successful.  With Alonso and Massa, Ferrari could replicate this formula.

As for Adrian Sutil, he’s one of several German drivers on the grid this year.  Mercedes have demonstrated that they’re interested in maintaining an all-German line-up.  If Schumacher serves out his contract, he’ll retire for good at the end of 2012 (20 years after his first full season in the sport!), at which point Mercedes might try to hire Sutil as his replacement – if they’re unable to lure current Red Bull wunderkind Sebastian Vettel, that is.

Of course, there has also been speculation that Schumacher might abort his contract early, if he can’t up his game.  Personally, I don’t see this happening.  Being consistently outpaced by the less lauded Rosberg might cause Schumacher some frusration, but I suspect the humiliation factor is far less than it would be if he simply packed up his marbles and went home.  Also, Schumacher made his comeback, not because he felt the need to add to his stellar record (which will be hard to do), but because he missed the challenge of competing at the highest level.  Well, now he has it.  While others might wag their fingers and opine that the whole venture has been ill-advised, I think that Schumacher is probably relishing every moment.  He knows that he’ll retire for good at the end of 2012.  After that, it’s back to racing karts.

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