Three practice sessions and a three-stage qualifying event later, and one thing has remained abundantly clear throughout: the rest of the grid is going to have a hard time beating Sebastian Vettel in tomorrow’s Chinese Grand Prix after the German took his third pole position at three events this season.
And while Vettel’s fortunes continue to grow, on the other side of the Red Bull garage it was an unmitigated disaster, with Mark Webber qualifying a lowly 18th. The Australian’s result came off the back of a loss of track mileage (thanks to yet another KERS issue) in final practice, and the team’s inexplicable decision to fit the harder-compound Pirelli tyres to his RB7 at a stage when everyone else was running the softer-compound to ward off the threat of an early bath in Q1. Webber was a sitting duck.
The gulf between the two drivers is vast. Even with equally-working machinery, Vettel has comfortably had Webber’s measure, and this will do little to dispel the rumours that the Milton Keynes team is playing favourites.
But to the top of the order, and Vettel’s front row will be shared with Jenson Button, with last year’s racewinner hoping he can continue his solid form in tomorrow’s race, albeit with a deficit of some 0.7 seconds to Vettel’s incredible lap time of 1:33.706, the only sub 1m34s of the weekend.
The second row of the grid will be occupied by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – the best result of the season for Mercedes GP – who were only 0.2 seconds apart from each other.
The third row is an all-Ferrari affair, with Fernando Alonso edging out team-mate Felipe Massa by half a second, but the scarlet cars again ran plenty of miles on the softer tyres in qualifying to make sure they stood a chance of making it through until the end.
Three of the remaining four spot in the top-ten are somewhat unexpected, with Jaime Alguersuari (7th) and Sébastien Buemi (9th) creating a Toro Rosso sandwich with rookie driver and birthday boy Paul di Resta as the filling.
The red flags were brought out and this caused chaos for those on the fringe of making it into Q3, who were left with just two minutes in which to post a lap time quick enough to make it into the final stages.
When running resumed, only Rosberg was able to infiltrate the top-ten, bumping Force India’s Adrian Sutil off tenth spot. The likes of Nick Heidfeld and Michael Schumacher – generally considered as candidates for a tilt at Q3 – were eliminated, and they will start from a lowly 16th and 14th respectively.
While the Saubers of Sergio Pérez and Kamui Kobayashi line up right in front of Schumacher, Heidfeld is the meat in a Williams sandwich, with Rubens Barrichello out-qualifying Pastor Maldonado by 0.5 seconds.
Aside from Webber’s shock elimination, those removed during the Q1 knockout were the three sophomore teams, with Team Lotus heading a Noah’s Ark line-up, ahead of the two Virgins, while the two HRTs comfortable lapped within the 107% cut to ensure a 24-car field for tomorrow’s race.
But the man they will all have to catch is one smiling German in a Red Bull racing suit…
2011 Chinese Grand Prix – Qualifying Session Times:
|1.||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing Renault||1:35.674||1:34.776||1:33.706|
|2.||Jenson Button||McLaren Mercedes||1:35.924||1:34.662||1:34.421|
|3.||Lewis Hamilton||McLaren Mercedes||1:36.091||1:34.486||1:34.463|
|4.||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes GP||1:35.272||1:35.850||1:34.670|
|7.||Jaime Alguersuari||Toro Rosso Ferrari||1:36.133||1:35.563||1:36.158|
|8.||Paul di Resta||Force India Mercedes||1:35.702||1:35.858||1:36.190|
|9.||Sébastien Buemi||Toro Rosso Ferrari||1:36.110||1:35.500||1:36.203|
|10.||Vitaly Petrov||Renault||1:35.370||1:35.149||no time|
|11.||Adrian Sutil||Force India Mercedes||1:36.092||1:35.874|
|12.||Sergio Pérez||Sauber Ferrari||1:36.046||1:36.053|
|13.||Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber Ferrari||1:36.147||1:36.236|
|14.||Michael Schumacher||Mercedes GP||1:35.508||1:36.457|
|15.||Rubens Barrichello||Williams Cosworth||1:35.911||1:36.465|
|17.||Pastor Maldonado||Williams Cosworth||1:36.121||1:36.956|
|18.||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing Renault||1:36.468|
|19.||Heikki Kovalainen||Team Lotus Renault||1:37.894|
|20.||Jarno Trulli||Team Lotus Renault||1:38.318|
|21.||Jérôme d’Ambrosio||Virgin Racing Cosworth||1:39.119|
|22.||Timo Glock||Virgin Racing Cosworth||1:39.708|
|23.||Vitantonio Liuzzi||HRT F1 Cosworth||1:40.212|
|24.||Narain Karthikeyan||HRT F1 Cosworth||1:40.445|