Mercedes Still Dominant As Hamilton Claims Pole in Australian Qualifying Farce
Today has very much been a day of “I told you so’s”. The drivers, the fans, the commentators; everyone was skeptical about the new qualifying format and as it turned out, we were all justified. Even those who had been asking people to give it a chance have condemned it and it’s not hard to see why. Instead of the excitement and anxiety of the old format, we were made to clock-watch rather than car-watch, question everything rather than enjoy the spectacle and endure cars just sat in their garages instead of pushing for better times.
The new format was introduced in an effort to mix up the grid but, looking at the results, it’s all looking a bit familiar. There’s really only a couple of anomalies but it’s not like those didn’t exist with the old format anyway.
Q1 was probably the most interesting part but didn’t throw up many surprises. Manor were the first to fall foul of the timing system and were unable to get their drivers out for a second lap, resulting in Wehrlein going out first from Haryanto. However, Haryanto has a 3 place grid penalty for a pitlane collision with Romain Grosjean putting him at the back. Next up we have the Haas teammates who will undoubtedly be disappointed with P19 (Grosjean) & P20 (Gutierrez). But they have shown good pace throughout the weekend and I have no doubts that they will be able to work their way up the grid. Kvyat was the surprise elimination of the session. Initially it seemed as if Red Bull had miscalculated but now it appears to be that there was a problem with his car that made it pointless to run again. I do wonder if that might be a bit of an excuse, however, as they did seem a bit vague in what exactly the problem was. If it was a problem with the car then – with or without the elimination – he would have been out in Q1 anyway. Rounding out Q1 we had the Saubers with Ericsson outqualifying Nasr. The end of the session offered the only excitement of the whole of qualifying, in my opinion, as we waited to see if Jolyon Palmer would be able to squeeze his way into Q2 which he impressively did.
Q2 started with the elimination of said Renaults but with rookie Palmer outqualifying his teammate to the surprise of many. It’s going to be a big boost for him to have beaten his teammate in the first race of the season. Next up were the McLarens who are definitely having a better start to the season qualifying in P12 & P13 with Alonso ahead of Button. It’s still difficult to tell how they will fare in the race but they are aiming to finish in the Top 10 tomorrow. Unfortunately, so are a lot of other teams and we all know that 14 into 10 won’t go so we’ll see who triumphs. Valtteri Bottas had trouble finding grip on his tyres which left him vulnerable in P11 with a slightly tardy lap. You could also argue that some of it was psychological and maybe memories of his back injury that took him out of the race last year came back to him, forcing some errors. It’s not what Williams wanted but they can still definitely make a race of it from there. But, having said that, he is also under investigation after documentation was handed in too late to the FIA. A decision will be made early tomorrow but he may face a grid penalty of some kind. Fingers crossed that if that is the case, it is minimal. Ahead of him are the two Force Indias who were happy to qualify in P9 & P10, Perez leading Hulkenberg.
In this session we really started to see the main issues with the format. Largely that there just isn’t enough time to process things. Both for the spectators and the teams. While we’re trying to do maths in our head to see who can go out when and if they have time to complete their laps, the teams are doing the same. And the problem is, if they come to the conclusion that they are not going to have time to do an out lap and a timed lap…they just don’t bother. So what we ended up with was the McLarens coming in after one lap and, despite the fact that they were still a couple of slots away from elimination, deciding to sit in the garage for the rest of the session, settling for their position. Which is not the most thrilling thing to watch.
Things got even more ridiculous in Q3. Home favourite Daniel Ricciardo was the first to be eliminated, the Red Bull – as predicted – currently inferior to the very tidy looking Toro Rosso. Carlos Sainz qualified a respectable P7 but there is more to come from him as his Q2 was actually good enough P5. Max Verstappen was the one to claim that position, however; his best so far in Formula 1. It will be interesting to see what he can do from there but it’s hard to say if that Ferrari engine is a match for those with 2016 Mercedes PUs behind them. In between the two Toro Rossos is Felipe Massa in the Williams. He, along with the two STRs only did the one lap and so, like the McLarens, they ended up sat in the garages consolidating their positions as they awaited the countdown. We spent more time watching things in the pit lane than we did out on track, which makes you wonder just how “exciting” it must have been for fans actually at the circuit.
So we were left with what we assumed to be the Mercedes and Ferraris duking it out for pole position. It stood at Lewis Hamilton on pole, followed by the two Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen and then Rosberg in P4 after a bit of a scruffy first lap in the second sector. But then we heard a message to Sebastian from his engineer saying that that would be their one and only lap. They were both out of their cars and out of the session six minutes from the end of Q3, settling on a second row lock out after Rosberg put in a second quick lap to go P2, within a couple of hundredths of his teammate.
But Lewis was on another flyer and extended his advantage, even though there was no pressure to be had, to claim pole position by three tenths of a second. There were still four minutes left on the clock. So where was this exciting qualifying we had been promised? There’s always that nervous excitement in Q3, right until the last second with cars flying across the finish line and you watch the times and positions continually shift. Maybe someone will make a mistake and there will be an upset. Maybe someone can pull out an absolute flyer. There’s always that chance, right until the last moment. But with this new system, that’s gone. For anyone who doesn’t care about Mercedes, why even bother staying to the end of the session?
Sebastian even had time to change into his casual team wear before the press conference which I think makes a very obvious point as to how farcical the entire process was. Team principals and drivers alike were asked about their thoughts and they were all largely the same. This had been a big misstep. An urgent meeting has been arranged for tomorrow to figure out what to do before Bahrain. Presumably the two choices they have are to either revert completely back to the old format or to compromise and keep the elimination process for Q1 & Q2 but revert to the old system for Q3. If this is the way they go then I hope they still try and revise some of the issues to make it more interesting to watch, especially for those in attendance. Australian spectators were largely confused and dissatisfied with the entire thing and ultimately, these are the people that FOM and the FIA should be listening to. You have to question the fact that the meeting is with the same set of people who made the decision in the first place. Not sure that’s especially productive but we’ll see.
So how are things looking for the race? Well, it’s obvious that Mercedes were indeed sandbagging over the winter and they still have quite a margin over Ferrari, at least in qualifying. It’s disappointing but what has annoyed me even more is the blatant deceit. Mercedes made a point of saying that they think Ferrari have closed the gap significantly, may even be ahead of them, which has clearly just be a ploy to either entice viewers or lure teams into a false sense of security. BUT. Having said that, it is only qualifying. Maybe we will see that gap close up tomorrow and Ferrari are at least in the position to do so.
Can Nico challenge are ‘resurgent’ Lewis? Hard to say at this stage. Nico made several errors during qualifying and that might knock his confidence a bit but I think he may have the upper hand when it comes to the lack of radio communication. Lewis doesn’t always make the best decisions when left to his own devices so that could prove interesting at least.
I forsee a lot of scrapping in the midfield which should be entertaining. It’s good to see the McLarens up there and hopefully they will be able to actually make a race of things for a change. Should something untoward happen at the front, we could be looking at the first Toro Rosso podium since 2008.
Despite the mess of qualifying and the familiar looking grid line up, we could very well still be in for an exciting race and I hope for all our sake’s that that is the case.