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Webber Swims to Pole in Rain-Soaked Qualifying in Malaysia

Mark Webber racing to pole in Malaysia

In a final, rain-soaked qualifying session today, Mark Webber made a last minute tire change, from full wets to intermediates, prior to running his final hot lap of the day.  The tire choice gave Webber’s car some added grip, and enabled the Aussie to grab pole position for Sunday’s grand prix in Malaysia.

Webber was quick to share credit for tire strategy.  As reported on ESPNF1, Webber said, “The pole goes to Ciaron, my engineer, as he made the call for inters in Q3. I said, ‘have a look at the track, what do you think?’ and he said, ‘yeah let’s go for it’. It was tricky in places, in the last corner there was a bit of aquaplaning, but I kept it on the black stuff and got the job done.”

The qualifying podium was rounded out by Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Webber’s Red Bull team mate, Sebastian Vettel.

Rosberg made an admirable showing on what was arguably the wrong tire choice for the Q3 session.  “As soon as we went out,” he said, “I thought intermediates were the way to go, and maybe I should have come in, but in the end it worked out well for us.”

And Sebastian Vettel concurred that he was hampered by the wrong tire choice at the end of the session.  “In Q3 I think we did the right thing putting on extremes [full wets]. [But] the water disappeared quicker than the majority of people thought, and Mark was on the better tyre in the end.  But I think third is a good result for the team.”

Heavy rain brought out a red flag during the middle of Q3.  Vettel supported this decision, saying, “It was the right thing to call the red flag.  It was just impossible. I think there was too much water.  The cars are quite low, so you end up swimming more than driving.”

Drivers who beat expectations by attaining favorable grid positions in Q3 included Force India’s Adrian Sutil (4th), Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg (5th) and Renault’s Robert Kubica (6th).  Hulkenberg beat his more experienced team mate, Rubens Barrichello, who has the reputation for being a deft hand in the wet.  The Brazillian took 7th on the grid, just ahead of fellow oldster, and former Ferrari cohort, Michael Schumacher, who snagged a disappointing 8th.

Barrichello was oddly philosophical about his team’s performance.  “There are two ways to look at qualifying,” he said.  “The positive is that we are happy as a team, but I don’t think we would have achieved P5 and P7 in a dry session.”

He also agreed with the majority opinion that he’d given up some pace by making his final run on full wets.  “In hindsight,” he said, “I should have chosen intermediates for my last run, which would have given me a better lap time. I’m still pleased as we are better prepared for tomorrow.”

And Michael Schumacher was once again outqualified by his younger team mate, Nico Rosberg.  Schumacher was slightly quicker than Rosberg in Saturday’s FP3, and no doubt he had hopes of continuing the trend in qualifying.  In fact, Schumacher outpaced Rosberg in Q1, and the German ace looked quick in the early stages of both Q2 and Q3, but when the time counted most, in the final moments of Q3, Schumacher was unable to make an improvement.  He was at the top of the time sheets before Q3 was red-flagged, but when the checkers fell, he was down in 8th.

Schumacher had claimed he was reasonably satisfied with his qualifying efforts in both Bahrain and Melbourne, but he made no such pretense today.  “I am obviously a little disappointed with my result,” he said, “as it was evident from the earlier qualifying sessions that we looked pretty good and I clearly could have achieved more.”

Like some of the other drivers, Schumacher had chosen to remain on full wet tires, which degraded quickly.  “On my last run in Q3,” he said, “I wanted to secure a lap time, and then go for the second lap, but after I finished my first quick lap the tyres were already gone, so I could not go for it anymore.”

The Q3 finishers were rounded out by Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and Force India’s Tonio Liuzzi.

Several midfield drivers made it to today’s Q3 session as a direct result of costly judgment calls made by two first tier teams who normally take up 40% of the Q3 grid slots.  Both McLaren and Ferrari delayed deployment of their cars during Q1, on the assumption that the session’s early rain would dissipate, leaving them with a drier track.

In fact, the exact opposite occurred: conditions during Q1 grew progressively worse, with the result that McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, were unable to improve on their initial times, which prevented them from advancing to Q2.

Ironically, the time set by McLaren’s Jenson Button (1:52.211) was good enough for the Briton to advance, but he spun and beached his car in one of the gravel traps and was unable to get it on track again, even with the help of track marshalls.  So Button was relegated to 17th.

The net result of all this will be a starting grid that’s at least partially in reverse order.  This should make for some intteresting racing tomorrow.  Expect to see both Alonso and Hamilton on a charge from the outset, regardless of conditions.  Massa, on the other hand, might not fare so well if it rains, as he’s not noted for being exceptional in the wet.

Also, according to the FIA regs, if the cars begin the race on full wets or inters, they are no longer required to use both the primary and option tire compounds during the course of the race.  As the cars will have race-distance fuel loads, a driver who looks after his tires might be able to avoid making any stops at all.

Admittedly, this is unlikely, as the full wets degrade rather quickly, and rainy conditions are rarely consistent, which means that drivers will probably use both full wets and inters at various points during the race, and perhaps the options as well.  But this is guaranteed to elevate the importance of strategy, and could provoke some unexpected outcomes.

Image by f1photo.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

Pos. Driver Team Time Session
1 Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:49.327 Q3
2 Rosberg Mercedes 1:50.673 Q3
3 Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:50.789 Q3
4 Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:50.914 Q3
5 Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:51.001 Q3
6 Kubica Renault 1:51.051 Q3
7 Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:51.511 Q3
8 Schumacher Mercedes 1:51.717 Q3
9 Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:51.767 Q3
10 Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:52.254 Q3
11 Petrov Renault 1:48.760 Q2
12 de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:48.771 Q2
13 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:49.207 Q2
14 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:49.464 Q2
15 Kovalainen/td>

Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.270 Q2
16 Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:52.520 Q2
17 Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:52.211 Q2
18 Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.884 Q1
19 Alonso Ferrari 1:53.044 Q1
20 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:53.050 Q1
21 Massa Ferrari 1:53.283 Q1
22 Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 1:56.299 Q1
23 Senna HRT-Cosworth 1:57.269 Q1
24 di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.977 Q1
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