Nico Rosberg made it two Mercedes pole positions in as many weeks as he produced a sensational final lap to take the spoils in Bahrain, ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
It was the second pole position of his career and means that Mercedes and Red Bull have both taken half the pole positions this season. But the race could be a different story.
After being off the ultimate pace throughout the weekend’s practice sessions Rosberg showed his speed from the outset of qualifying, although he only topped the times in Q3. And after coming close already this year he was able to save his best for two medium-tyre runs in the top ten shoot out to take the second pole position of his career.
“The first few races have been difficult, I hope I can kick start my season here,” said the German. “It’s going to be a very, very tough race, especially rear tyre degradation and wear, this track is quite severe for that. I’m not sure if we have what it takes to win the race tomorrow.”
However, Mercedes’ single lap pace today does not mean that they are the favourites for tomorrow’s race win, as the Mercedes is overheating its rear tyres on long runs and with Red Bull also tougher on tyres than Ferrari there is a question mark over what Vettel might be able to do starting on the front row. It will be worth watching out for the quality of their getaway from the line tomorrow as well as Mark Webber said in a TV interview this evening that he thinks some of the others may have moved ahead of Red Bull in perfecting their starts. One of them is clearly Ferrari and so, for a variety of reasons, it is Alonso who once again finds himself in a strong position, despite making a mistake on his final run in Q3. He aborted the lap and saved a lap on the tyres.
Ferrari has approached this weekend methodically with lots of work in Friday practice on both tyre compounds and lots of data. Felipe Massa went for the hard tyre in Q3 and with grid penalties applied to Webber (for China collision) and Hamilton (for a gearbox change) Massa starts fourth with a totally different strategy from the rest.
Alonso was at the sharp end for the duration of qualifying but chose to abort his final flying lap when he saw that he would be unable to beat the times of Rosberg and Vettel ahead, so he saved a lap on his medium tyres. Ferrari will be hoping for a reconstruction of how last weekend’s Grand Prix win panned out, and with Kimi Raikkonen only managing ninth place he has little threat of a car that is good to its tyres nearby. Raikkonen was many people’s favourite for this weekend after stunning pace on the long runs, but he missed his chance in qualifying; if he had matched his Q2 time in Q3 he would be starting fifth tomorrow and in with a chance. As it is he’ll have his work cut out from 8th, especially as the Force India cars will be hard to pass.
Raikkonen moves up to eighth after the fourth placed Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton had to undergo a late gearbox change following suspension damage in FP3 and consequently received that five-place gear box penalty, which means he starts 9th.
Amongst a number of excellent drives the Force India pairing of Paul Di Resta and Adrian Sutil stood out. They have had the pace to fight for the top ten all weekend and after the penalties they will see themselves beginning in fifth and sixth place, with Di Resta coming out on top.
Closing out the top ten is Jenson Button, better than expected in many ways for McLaren. They were unable to match the teams ahead, but seemed satisfied with making it at least one car in the shoot out. Team mate Sergio Perez was 12th.
It was another difficult session for the Williams team as their two drivers posted identical times to the nearest 1/1000th in Q1. The fact that the two were so close indicates that they are dragging the maximum out of the FW35, but that maximum could only see them qualify 15th with Bottas and 17th with Maldonado. There are no quick fixes in the pipeline for the team, only hard yards ahead, it seems.
The battle between Caterham and Marussia swung in the former’s favour with Charles Pic coming out on top of the quartet. His team mate, Giedo van der Garde, was behind the Marussia of Jules Bianchi but ahead of Max Chilton. Pic has an extensive range of upgrades on his car and it’s made a significant difference, as he was well clear of the Marussias today.
The race will be about strategy and keeping the rear tyres cool. Lotus and Ferrari are the strongest on long runs with Force India also competitive. Alonso looks the favourite, but Vettel will make it as hard as he can. The battle for the podium will be fascinating with a number of contenders.
BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m32.330s
2. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m32.584s + 0.254s
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m32.667s + 0.337s
4. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m32.762s + 0.432s (will start 9th)
5. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m33.078s + 0.748s (will start 7th)
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m33.207s + 0.877s (will start 4th)
7. Paul di Resta Force India 1m33.235s + 0.905s (will start 5th)
8. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m33.246s + 0.916s (will start 6th)
9. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m33.327s + 0.997s (will start 8th)
10. Jenson Button McLaren
11. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m33.762s + 1.016s
12. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m33.914s + 1.168s
13. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m33.974s + 1.228s
14. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1m33.976s + 1.230s
15. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m34.105s + 1.359s
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m34.284s + 1.538s
17. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m34.425s + 1.547s
18. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m34.730s + 1.852s
19. Charles Pic Caterham 1m35.283s + 2.405s
20. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m36.178s + 3.300s
21. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m36.304s + 3.426s
22. Max Chilton Marussia 1m36.476s + 3.598s