Day two of the Australian Grand Prix saw the grid set for Sunday’s round one epic race.
The Saturday pace saw lap times tumble as new unofficial lap records were set, proving at least half of the reasoning to change to the technical regulations of the cars this year. As usual, it was one man who climbed to the top, though it wasn’t with the domination which has come to be expected.
Before qualifying, the final free practice session of the weekend got underway at 2pm local time under sunny skies. With only an hour to play with, a majority of the front runners used the session to optimise their qualifying setups. It was clear what kind of runs everyone was on given the amount of laps differed between 10-15 laps.
Between Friday and Saturday’s practice session, Sauber announced Wehrlein would step down for the round due to health concerns, being replaced by Antonio Giovinazzi for the weekend. The addition of the young driver to the field makes sure there are 15 different nationalities in this weekend’s field.
There was early trouble for Raikkonen who suffered a puncture in the opening minutes, luckily catching it before pushing on with his lap. A tyre change and quick telemetry download were all he needed before heading back out on circuit.
It was the Finn’s 4 time world champion team-mate who set Melbourne alight, Vettel breaking his own lap record late in the session by two tenths of a second, posting a 1:23.380. On the purple ultra soft tyres, he cleared the next car by 0.4 seconds with a lap which stunned the crowd.
The two Mercedes followed Vettel with Bottas the leader of the pair with a 1:23.859. Hamilton was a fraction being, his best lap a 1:23.870 earlier in the session.
Raikkonen got over the earlier troubles by snatching fourth on the sheets, albeit 0.6 seconds off the pace. Hulkenburg was the next car back, a further 1.6 seconds off the lead pace.
Stroll brought out the red flag on debut after whacking the turn 10 wall near the end of the session, damaging his car so badly it couldn’t return to the pits. Ricciardo, Grosjean, Sainz, Kvyat and Magnussen rounded out the top ten spots heading in to qualifying.
With dark clouds blocking out the sun, the track temperature dropped so the super grippy tyres could have some level of adhesion on the surface. The beginning of Q1 saw the usual suspects from the top of the pack jump on the super soft tyres, so as to not burn their joker cards for later.
In the final minute, the drop zone lost and gained a few drivers with those eventually being eliminated including Giovinazzi, Magnussen, Vandoorne, Stroll and Palmer. The young Canadian will start last thanks to a gearbox penalty courtesy of his practice three crash.
Roll on Q2 and it was clear the final session would be one to watch. With the high level of competitiveness which has come to be expected in the closing parts of qualifying, it was no surprise all runners set their fastest laps on the ultra soft rubber.
A handful of drivers went below the 1:24 benchmark of what is defined as quick. A few even broke the lap record though what really mattered was who didn’t progress forward. Perez, Hulkenburg, Alonso, Ocon and Ericsson did not make it through to Q3 but have free choice as to what tyres they start the race on.
With rain looming, the final session began with the fastest ten drivers waiting for the optimal time to head out. With the two Mercedes’ and Ferrari’s setting their banker laps, Ricciardo was on for a decent time when he spun at turn 14. The fast slide sent him in to the wall and out of the session.
Rain drops started to come down as the wreckage was cleared up but when the clock started again, the road was still dry enough to put in a good time. As Grosjean went out to set a lap, some drivers stayed back in the pits, waiting to put in one banzai lap.
With the clock ticking to zero, everyone who mattered was on a hot lap. Bottas jumped to the top with a 1:22.481, a second clear of the unofficial lap record. Hamilton crossed the line next, blitzing everyone with a spectacular 1:22.188 tour of the circuit. Vettel went fastest in the second sector and kept Hamilton honest, slotting in to second with 1:22.456.
The starting order for the top ten is provisionally Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen, Verstappen, Grosjean, Massa, Sainz, Kvyat and Ricciardo. Hamilton’s lap puts him around 1.4 seconds clear of Vettel’s 2011 qualifying lap record. The new cars are certainly faster than previous years though we will need to wait until the race to see if the racing is just as good.
Image via Mercedes AMG F1 Petronas F1 Team