Qualifying for the European Grand Prix today, in Valencia, offered a few surprises, but little drama. The Red Bull boys, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, captured the front row of the starting grid again, proving that their qualifying dominance this year is more the rule than the exception. Vettel has a appeared rather sour-faced at the past few venues where he has been outpaced by his team mate Webber, but in today’s post-quali interview he looked his old ebullient self.
Rounding out the qualifying podium was McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who added a bit of luster to his performance by saying that third slot was better than he’d expected, given the pace that McLaren’s rivals had shown during this weekend’s free practice sessions. Never mind the fact that he might have placed himself a bit higher in the pecking order had he not made a very visible unforced error on his last flying lap, which ruined his last shot at pole. Hamilton and the Red Bull twins were the only cars on the grid to set times below 1m 38s.
Home soil favorite Fernando Alonso was edged out for a seat in the briefing room by a shade more than a tenth of a second by Hamilton. Valencia locals had cheered the Spaniard every time he passed the grandstands, but their cheers weren’t enough to give the Ferrari pilot the added boost he would have needed to show up his former McLaren team mate.
Good news for Ferrari’s Felipe Massa: his new team mate Alonso, who has been showing him the way at virtually every turn this year, bettered him by a mere 0.052 seconds today. The gap between them has usually been wider. I suppose it’s a mixed blessing, however, if the best a driver can say is that his team mate didn’t beat him quite as badly as he usually does.
The remainder of the Q3 qualifiers were something of a surprise. While there’s nothing new in seeing Renault’s Robert Kubica knocking at the door (he was a mere 0.010 behind Massa, and 0.083 ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button), it is a novelty to see both Williams cars in Q3. Moreover, the Williams boys recorded identical lap times. Rubens Barrichello has been generally outpacing his younger rookie team mate, Nico Hulkenberg, this year, so undoubtedly the young German will take satisfaction in having at least equaled the Brazilian veteran.
The top ten qualifiers were rounded out by Vitaly Petrov, who continues to impress in his rookie season. He was 0.386 slower than his highly rated Renault team mate, Robert Kubica, but Petrov has been more impressive in race trim rather than in qualifying. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him gain track position in the opening lap scrum tomorrow, perhaps getting by the Williams cars, which would put him in a good position to start worrying Jenson Button.
As for Button, he once again proved that, lap for lap, McLaren team mate Lewis Hamilton has the edge over him, although on Sundays it’s often been Button’s more seasoned race-craft that has gained the upper hand.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day came from Mercedes. While paddock pundits nodded sagely when they saw the Comeback Kid, a.k.a. Michael Schumacher, fail to break out of Q2 for the second race in a row, Schumacher’s lack of pace (he could do no better than 15th) seemed to be legitimized by the laggard run of Rosberg, who only managed to slot in at 12th.
Schumacher made excuses about brakes that locked and tires that failed to heat properly, and I suspect that there was more wrong with the car than there was with the performance of either of the drivers. While the team brought upgrades to Valencia, most notably their own version of the blown diffuser (which was pioneered by Red Bull, and which all the other teams are now desperately copying), none of the upgrades seem to have addressed the fundamental balance problem plaguing the Mercedes.
That said, it should still be noted that Rosberg managed to outpace the seven-time champ by 0.607 seconds, a gap that cannot be comforting to Schumacher, regardless of how many times he repeats to the press what has become his favorite mantra: “I know what I’m doing.” In his defense, it might be pointed out that he’s never raced at Valencia before, but there’s an obvious rebuttal to that argument. Schumacher made his F1 debut at Spa in 1991, where he dazzled the crowd by qualifying seventh in a Jordan, a car that had no business going that quickly. At the time, paddock cynics said, “Of course he was quick, he knows the track.” But in truth, he’d never raced there before, in F1 or in any other formula.
At that stage of his career, young Schumi seemed mystified by the fact that other drivers couldn’t match his pace. Now the equation seems to be inverted.