Sunday, March 18, 2012

Australian Grand Prix: Qualifying

Yesterday in Melbourne, the twenty four cars that normally make up the Formula 1 grid took to Albert Park to find out once and for all where they stand after a long winter of testing and development. When the lights turned green for the first part of the inaugural race’s qualifying session, teams scrambled to get their cars out on track in the glorious Australian sunshine after poor weather limited their running yesterday.

Almost immediately, Narain Karthikeyan proved to be an irritation in his troubled HRT. The Indian driver played the part of mobile chicane, blocking both world champion, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, causing the pair to wave their fists angrily as they finally made their way past. After qualifying well outside the 107 percent rule, both HRTs were refused permission to race from the stewards and will have to hope that they can find a spot on the grid in Malaysia next weekend. Karthikeyan was, however, sceptical that the team could improve the car before then. “It’s going to be a lot hotter and we have cooling problems already, so it’s going to be hard.” He told the media after the session. “We don’t want to bullshit ourselves; it’s going to be very difficult.”

The major surprise of qualifying one was the loss of former World Champion, Kimi Raikkonen, who made his return to Formula 1 in Australia. Even before the session began there were rumours circulating within the paddock that as the rain fell during Friday’s second practice session, Kimi simply declared to his team that he did not feel like going out on track. This caused several commentators to revisit the major pre-season debate of whether or not Raikkonen is motivated and ready to race. When, in the dying moments of the first session, the Finnish driver made a mistake and could do no better than eighteenth position on the grid, their scrutiny seemed to be legitimized. Afterwards Raikkonen explained that a miscommunication meant that he thought he had time for another lap and therefore slowed as the minutes counted down to zero. “We had plenty of speed and I just ran wide in turn twelve and we were supposed to have one more lap and that’s why I slowed down.” He explained. “Probably if I’d just kept going we would have been fast enough to go through. I was supposed to have one more lap and I was just speeding up through the last corner when the red lights came on…It was close but I just missed my last lap.”

Whatever the reason for Raikkonen’s poor grid position, it was made to look even worse by his teammate Romain Grosjean, who not only made it through to the final part of qualifying, but managed to put his Lotus in third position for Sunday’s race. For Grosjean, it was a dream start to his season and he must have felt a little bit vindicated after his previous spell in Formula 1 ended so badly. “Very few people still had faith in me after my first life in Formula 1, but we’ve all worked very hard to start a new adventure and I’m very happy to be able to put a great performance in right from the start of the season.” The reigning GP2 champion stated. “This third position shows one thing: you must believe in your dreams and hold on to them, whatever happens.”

Ferrari’s dreams of hoisting this year’s constructer’s championship were dealt a solid blow when the team had their worst qualifying sessions in recent memory. Felipe Massa barely managed to make it out of the first qualifying session and both of the F2012s failed to make the top ten, with Massa qualifying in a lowly sixteenth position. That isn’t to say that Fernando Alonso didn’t look capable of making it into the final shootout for pole position. The Spaniard touched the grass while heading into turn one and ended up beaching himself in the gravel, bringing out red flags in the process. After the disappointment he assured Ferrari fans worldwide that he would still be fighting for points on Sunday’s Grand Prix and assured the media that the team would give it their all to make up the deficit in the coming races. “We have to work and I’m sure we’ve worked 24 hours a day before this race, now we need to work 25 and it’s the only way to improve the car and to win races soon.” He summarised. Although, as a tifosa, it was a very bad day for me, Fernando’s lost-in-translation comment brought a smile to my face. Surely he didn’t mean to imply that winning races would be impossible for the scuderia this year and as I chuckled to myself, I relaxed and decided that Sunday could still go Ferrari’s way.

At the sharp end of the grid, McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes all looked more than capable of challenging for pole position. There were also fantastic performances from Pastor Maldonado, who drove his much improved Williams Renault to eighth position on the grid, and Daniel Ricciardo, who earnt a spot in the final qualifying session for the first time in his career, much to the delight of his home crowd.

In the end it was the McLarens who occupied the front row, with Lewis Hamilton just edging out Jenson button by 0.152 seconds. Red Bull was also caught off guard by Mercedes as Michael Schumacher grabbed an impressive fourth spot on the grid and his countryman, Nico Rosberg ended up in seventh. Sebastian Vettel blamed his sixth place on a mistake made during his final lap. “I wasn’t entirely happy with my final attempt; I did a mistake at the beginning of the lap so I should have been higher up.” He admitted before adding. “But I think McLaren was out of reach today so congratulations, they were really quick.” Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber qualified just in front of him ahead of tomorrow’s race and Nico Hulkenberg brought his Force India towards the front of the grid, when he finished the day in ninth.

With more than one driver out of place for the race, the Australian Grand Prix promises to be even more exciting than qualifying. Look out for Kimi Raikkonen to prove his worth as well as both Ferraris to try and make their way further up the field.

**Photographs for this blog post were generously provided by Gianluca Martini**

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