Bahrain Qualy: Vettel takes pole
Mercedes fail to deliver as World Champions return to form
Last Updated: 21/04/12 7:12pm
World Champion Sebastian Vettel has tore up the 2012 pecking order by defying Red Bull's relative early-season slump by grabbing an entirely unexpected pole position for the Bahrain GP.
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At the culmination of a riveting qualifying hour that was widely expected to be dominated by Mercedes, the Red Bulls suddenly switched on with Vettel taking pole by just a tenth from Lewis Hamilton while a mistake at the final corner of his one-and-only flying lap resulted in pre-session favourite Nico Rosberg finishing behind Mark Webber and Jenson Button in a disappointing fifth.
Having struggled to hang on to the McLarens and then the Mercedes in the opening three events of the year, Red Bull's steady improvement had been apparent all weekend, yet not even the team itself believed that pole position was within their radar. "I'm surprised, to be honest," admitted Christian Horner when asked to account for the RB8's sudden turn of speed. "Sebastian was nearly knocked out at the end of Q1, nearly knocked out at the end of Q2, and has then stuck it on pole!"
Somewhere in that startled summary is the encapsulation of the season as a whole, but while Red Bull struggled to explain their unexpected leap forward, Mercedes were left scratching their heads whilst wondering why and how Qualifying escaped their clutches.
Having headed the field through Practice Two and Practice Three, Qualifying proved be a session horribilis for Ross Brawn's outfit, with the frustration of Rosberg bettered - or worsened, depending on your point of view - by that of Michael Schumacher after what appeared to be a glaring tactical error resulted in the former World Champion fall at the first hurdle in Q3.
Though Schumacher later cited a fault with his DRS unit, there was no doubt that Mercedes - and very nearly Hamilton, who only sneaked through by a fraction of a second - had been badly caught out by the sudden evolution of the Bahrain track as the rising temperature laid down extra grip.
With all the teams forced into the delicate and risk-heavy compromise of seeking a route through to Q3 whilst saving up their tyres for what is expected to be a race of attrition, Lotus were the next big-name team to suffer for rolling the dice with Kimi Raikkonen, sat in the garage as time run out, bumped out of the final segment as the Force India of Paul di Resta and Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo made unpredicted entries into the top ten.
"We had the speed today and we could easily have gone through to the final session with another run, but we thought it was worth taking the risk to only do one lap in Q2 and save fresh sets of tyres for the race," reflected Raikkonen. "Managing the tyres will be a priority tomorrow, so while it was a gamble that didn't get us through to the final session it will hopefully be a strategy which pays off."
Though the three races hitherto have been the stars of 2012, it is in qualifying that F1's fine margins are most apparent and this Saturday's session was a prime example of just how competitive this season is proving.
"You just don't know what is going to happen," reflected Button, relieved and delighted to have taken fourth place after previously failing to hook up his MP4-27 around the dusty Sakhir circuit. "It's very close at the front, and unexpectedly we are ahead of Nico, which is a shock. We knew that the Red Bulls would be quick, but we didn't expect to be so far up."
Nor would anyone have predicted that the sixth-placed Ricciardo would have finished qualifying so far up the grid or that Di Resta could acheived a top-ten starting postion in the wake of Force India withdrawing from P3. True, some things are seemingly set in stone: for the third Saturday in succession, Ricciardo's team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne was eliminated at the end of Q3 while Felipe Massa trailed Fernando Alonso in the under-performing F2012.
But the general rule of thumb is one to relish: 2012 is proving to be the year of the entirely unexpected.