Confused? We are. Red Bull too possibly; it easy to forget that 30 minutes or so before Sebastian Vettel bagged his second podium of the season (of two), the team were sending him back out to shore-up his Q1 lap.
Fastest in this morning’s FP3, the RB9 is making neither the champ nor the other bloke remotely happy. Over one lap, most still think it the quickest F1 car right now. But there are no one-lap races, and there’s a glitch in the data the team gets back from the car that makes it hard to predict. And in tactical racing (which this year starts on a Saturday) you need to be able to predict your own car before you start looking at the others.
Neither Vettel nor team-mate Mark Webber looked entirely safe after the first Q1 period, the champ down there just above the gang-of-six (with this race’s special guest stars Valterri Bottas and Jean-Eric Vergne). Yet come the final, final flag there he was ahead of Felipe Massa by the thick end of a second. He looked kind of surprised afterwards, and not entirely Smiley Seb. There’s something going on there; the team was incredibly cautious at the start of Q1. I guess we won’t know until tomorrow.
At the lights, it is Felipe Massa that Vettel will need to beat to the first corner. Yes. Massa. On the front row for the first time in over 50 races, and ahead of team-mate Fernando Alonso. Again.
Sure, Massa and Vettel were the only top ten drivers to slip on a second set of intermediates in a qualifying hour dominated less by the need to secure track position at the lights, than by the need (one) to cover off the oppo’s tyre strategy options and (two) not get caught out by the conditions that saw the skies open at the end of Q2. Though it was hardly a deluge, the track never really drying before the end of Q3.
You could sense the teams waiting for their drivers to ask for a set of this weekend’s softer “medium compound” tyres, which all the teams threw at qualifying as they’ll be largely useless in the race. Vettel and Massa made the opposite call.
Massa’s pace is pretty much guaranteed now. As we’ve said already this week, Alonso just does not want to have to think about this one. Alonso’s heroic stoicism of last year is already being replaced by a slightly anxious sense of denial. Massa’s pace is no poor reflection on Alonso; don’t forget in qualifying together, he blew Kimi Raikkonen’s doors off when they were team-mates at Ferrari.
Yes, Kimi Raikonnen, Australian winner and championship leader. He starts tomorrow’s race seventh (as he did Australia), and with the same seven cars he beat ahead of him, albeit in different order. This time around Kimi’s behind Vettel and Massa on the front row, Alonso and Lewis Hamilton on the second, Webber and Nico Rosberg on the third, Jenson Button next to Kimi on four and the again-impressive Adrian Sutil and Checo Perez on five. Can he do it again? Hmm, we’re less convinced today than we were Friday.
You’ll have spotted the two McLarens in the top ten then. That’s progress, though the conditions helped, as did the absence of any properly soft rubber. There’s more rain around tomorrow, and history tells us that you simply can’t discount Jenson Button in tricky conditions. Then again, Checo Perez hardly disgraced himself at this track last year.
Poor old Paul di Resta has everything to do to prove he’s as good as Sutil, but team screwed up a weather radar call in Q2, forcing di Resta to try and get a quick one in on a wet track that was never going to allow it. It was tough to watch. You also have to despair for Nico Hulkenberg. This year’s Sauber is not last year’s Sauber and he must be wishing he’s stayed with The Force. They, meanwhile, must be looking down the grid at man-of-the-moment Jules Bianchi (who they turned over for Sutil) and be wondering how they might be getting on had they signed both he and Sutil.
Bianchi’s Marussia was out in Q1, of course, but he was just a fraction behind Valterri Bottas’ Williams, which exited events after the first 20 mins. A Williams? Bottas, the man meant to be the new talent this year. Like we say: confused.