We hoped that we were in for a season of surprises and it has certainly started well with Sebastian Vettel snatching pole for the Bahrain Grand Prix by a healthy margin over the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.
Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber could easily have made it an all Red Bull front row, but he lost a second in the middle sector, which features the fiddly new section of track. He set the fastest third sector time of all.
Pre-season testing made it look like Ferrari and McLaren were in front, although there were signs in Jerez and Barcelona that the Red Bull was quick over a single lap. But what happened today was that the margins between the cars were quite small in the early part of qualifying, but then in Q3 when the track got hot, it also became slippery and the Red Bull handled it better than the rest. McLaren didn’t handle it well at all.
They never looked on the pace today, particularly Jenson Button, who struggled to get into the top ten shootout and ended up 8th. Of course both cars were comfortably fastest through the speed trap, Button was 9kh/h faster than Vettel through there, indicating that the McLaren rear wing is really helping there and also how down on power the Renault is in the back of the Red Bull. If they had got a Mercedes deal I think we might be looking at a rather more one sided championship.
Hamilton’s time is about where the car is at the moment, according to team insiders. And yet the margin was a second, which again was far greater than at the start of qualifying and shows how well Vettel in particular and the Red Bull handled the loss of grip as the temperature went up at the vital moment near the end of the hour.
Mercedes were not quite there either. Rosberg qualified 5th with Schumacher in 7th, illustrating how a lay off of three years has made him “rusty”. I don’t think he expected to be behind Rosberg by as much as he was for most of the session. He was around half a second down most of the time, as he learned the best way to use these new generation tyres. In the end he got the deficit back to three tenths of a second.
Massa, who has led the most laps of any driver on this track, outpaced Alonso by quite a large margin – 4/10ths. Alonso had been the faster of the two in Q1 and Q2, but the Brazilian had a cleaner lap when the temperatures went up in the final part of the session.
Adrian Sutil and Force India look in good shape. Sutil was third in Q1 and was the only one of the top ten to set his time on the medium tyre, which is a good 6/10ths slower than the super soft. He starts tenth and has the luxury of the more durable race tyre to start with when the car is heavy and then the faster tyre at the end when the car is light and the track rubbered in. Watch out for him tomorrow.
Also Robert Kubica and Renault showed that they are there or thereabouts, getting the other available space in the top ten behind the four leading teams.
Red Bull were not perhaps expecting this performance advantage at this track. It only has one fast corner and they thought it would not play to their strengths. But it bodes well for them for the season. So we now know that the Red Bull goes well on hot tracks. If it is also quick in Melbourne, where the track will be quite cool, then they are in good shape. But Ferrari are stronger in race trim than they appeared in qualifying today and with their adjustable front wing working very well to manage the tyre wear, they are still a major threat to Vettel tomorrow.
It looks like the cars will stop before one third distance in the race to change to the medium tyre, which will see them through to the end. Pitting first gains you around half a second on any car you are racing against.
BAHRAIN GP – QUALIFYING
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:55.029 1:53.883 1:54.101
2. Massa Ferrari 1:55.313 1:54.331 1:54.242
3. Alonso Ferrari 1:54.612 1:54.172 1:54.608
4. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.341 1:54.707 1:55.217
5. Rosberg Mercedes 1:55.463 1:54.682 1:55.241
6. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:55.298 1:54.318 1:55.284
7. Schumacher Mercedes 1:55.593 1:55.105 1:55.524
8. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.715 1:55.168 1:55.672
9. Kubica Renault 1:55.511 1:54.963 1:55.885
10. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:55.213 1:54.996 1:56.309
11. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:55.969 1:55.330
12. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:55.628 1:55.653
13. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:56.375 1:55.857
14. de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.428 1:56.237
15. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:56.189 1:56.265
16. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.541 1:56.270
17. Petrov Renault 1:56.167 1:56.619
18. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:57.071
19. Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.728
20. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:59.852
21. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 2:00.313
22. di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 2:00.587
23. Senna HRT-Cosworth 2:03.240
24. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 2:04.904