World champion Sebastian Vettel took pole position for the Australian Grand Prix today, the first race of the 2011 season. Lewis Hamilton, despite a KERS problem, was a surprise second ahead of Mark Webber. Meanwhile Hispania Racing, who hardly did any laps all weekend, missed the cut for qualifying and are out of the Grand Prix.
It was a totally dominant performance from Vettel, who didn’t even use the KERS system, so left 4/10ths of a second in his pocket. Hamilton was 17km/h slower through Turn 11 than the Red Bull – that is pure downforce. He was 8/10ths off Vettel in the end, but warned him that “We will catch you up.”
But this Red Bull RB7 has the dominant look about it of the 1992 Williams or the 2004 Ferrari.
McLaren have done well to turn an unreliable, slow car in winter testing into one capable of starting on the front row, Hamilton did a good job, but splitting the Red Bulls had more to do with Webber underperforming than anything else. Hamilton’s KERS failed on his final hot lap, which cost him around 2/10ths of a second.
Webber didn’t use KERS either “for reasons we will keep in the team,” he said, leading to speculation that it was to mask the car’s true speed. Although a few hours after qualifying, it emerged that the team may have a “start only system” (see separate post)
“There’s a fraction more emotion with it being a home race,” said a disconsolate Webber, “But you have to perform everywhere you go. I didn’t put myself in the best position today.”
Webber qualified 7/100ths off Vettel here last year, it was almost a second today, so why has this happened? He has had an intense programme of off track activities in the last 10 days and looked harassed in an interview with Australian TV a couple of hours before qualifying. But even being distracted doesn’t explain such a big margin. Webber accepted full responsibility for underperforming.
It was a tricky session which was all about tyre temperature, with many drivers who had been expected to do well failing to make the grade.
The pole time was half a second faster than last year’s pole time, even allowing for the change of tyres from Bridgestone to Pirelli and the banning of double diffusers, which is an incredible achievement. The arrival of KERS, adjustable rear wings and great work by the engineers has neutralised the changes.
Judging from this high speed photo, the Red Bull still has a front wing which is getting very low to the ground when under aerodynamic load. It passes the much more stringent FIA tests, but clearly there are no limits to what the team can achieve with advanced carbon fibre layering techniques.
It was the first qualifying system using the new adjustable rear wing and it was interesting to see how much the system gave the various teams. Red Bull had less of a gain than Mercedes, but the most confident drivers, like Vettel, were using it in the middle of the chicane.
Qualifying started in cold conditions with strong crosswinds blowing through the track and many drivers struggled to find grip and get the tyres up to temperature. Hispania had hardly turned a lap all weekend, apart from a very slow one in practice for Kartikeyan which blocked several other cars.
After missing out on the 107% qualifying time, the stewards decided not to allow them to race in the Grand Prix. Meanwhile Virgin’s lack of progress from last year to this meant that they too were on the verge of not qualifying for the race. There is huge disappointment in the team with how far off they are.
Nick Heidfeld was the shock loser from Q1, eliminated along with the Lotus, Virgin and Hispania cars. He has been outperformed by his team mate Vitaly Petrov this weekend and it’s been a very tough start for the German. Lotus were disappointing; although they had six tenths over the Virgin cars, the gap to the established teams was still two seconds, a lot more than winter testing had suggested. Kovalainen had problems with his rear wing and like many cars the drivers struggled to get temperature into their tyres.
Ferrari surprisingly took soft tyres for Q1, indicating that they were struggling to get temperature into the hard tyres. Meanwhile McLaren and Red Bull both took hard tyres.
In Q2 Rubens Barrichello lost his car early on and got stuck in a gravel trap. He ended up 17th on the grid, outqualified by his team mate Maldonado. Hamilton took the hard tyres again, Vettel and Webber went with softs, but had to abort the lap when Barrichello went off.
Sutil had a huge spin coming onto the pit straight, showing what happens when you deploy the adjustable rear wing at the wrong moment. He was 16th on the grid. team mate and rookie Paul di Resta qualified 14th.
Mercedes were not on the pace that they showed in testing, Schumacher failed to make the cut for the top ten.
Sergio Perez was outclassed by team mate Kamui Kobayashi and ended up 13th.
Petrov did a fine job for Renault, but Ferrari was the big surprise, clearly unable to get heat into their tyres, Massa really suffered from it. “I thought Ferrari would be closer to us, but it’s just the tyres.”
AUSTRLIAN GRAND PRIX, Albert Park, Qualifying