Qualifying has changed a lot this year and it has everything to do with the tires. Some are not exactly fond of this new school qualifying, as Trulli stated that qualifying is dead, and Webber joked after his China adventure that he might as well not bother with quali anymore. While it is true that quali is an entirely different beast to what we are used to, it has by no means become an unimportant sideshow, a sort of glorified FP4, as some bloggers, drivers and pundits have claimed.
Race strategy now effectively starts in Q1. For the top teams it is all about who will be fast and brave enough to go out on the hards while the midfielders go out on the primes. The new harder prime tire introduced by Pirelli compounded this dilemma even further because it is about 2 secs per lap slower than the options. We are yet to see what the difference between the softs and supersofts to be used in the next 3 Grand Prixs will be. In Spain, once again Ferrari’s risk aversion pushed both their drivers to set a lap in Q1 on the soft compound – as they have done in every race so far this season- sacrificing a crucial set of fresh tires for the race while in reality there were at almost no risk at all of dropping out in Q1 with Barichello’s Williams having a gearbox issue, and Heidfeld’s Renault still smoldering from the bonfire in FP3. This decision would later prove to be ruinous for both ferrari drivers as once they had burned through their options in the race, the car was an absolute mess on the hard tire.
Alonso pulled out what he called ‘the perfect lap’ – and I believe him as the lap did look mighty- but it only managed to nab him fourth place, something I’d certainly not be jubilant about like Alonso was if that is really the most I can get after totally nailing a lap. Nonetheless moving up one grid row compared to his usual 5th slot enabled him to pull off a brilliant start and convert it into P1 after the first turn.
Webber grabbed his first pole of the year but failed to convert it into a win (the first time in 10 years a pole sitter didn’t win the Spanish GP) after Alonso caught him with his pants down, which also aided Vettel going round the outside to nab p2 from him. Hamilton lost one spot, Button got mugged and dropped 5 places, while Schumi profited from a slight wobble by Petrov into T3 to get ahead of his teammate who was then set for a very frustrating race looking at Schumi’s rear wing.
In contrast, Heidfeld with all his fresh tires starting from p24 managed to secure 8th, and if he had a couple more laps was likely to have passed the battling Mercedes duo for 6th. In a way Heidfeld’s performance was even more impressive than Webber’s in China. He made up more positions on a track where it is much harder to pass and he was in a slower car. Granted, he did have a couple easier overtakes with the Virgins and HRTs. Kobayashi converted a poor quali result after being blocked by Sutil on his flyer in Q2 into a superb p10 despite a first lap puncture, even more impressively he did it without having many new sets of tires available.
What do we make of all this? Has qualifying become redundant? I very much doubt it. Look at Lewis’ race in Turkey where he lost some positions after an overoptimistic move which forced him to battle hard with Button, then Rosberg. By the time he got out of traffic, his tires were shot and he had lost 15 seconds on the leaders and p4 was all he could salvage from then on. Look at Rosberg in Spain where he lost out to Schumi at the start and had his race ruined as a result of it. Look at China where Vettel got mugged by the Mclaren’s and ended up picking the wrong strategy largely due to him being behind his rivals rather than dictating the race from the front.
Qualifying is still hugely important as it puts you in a better position to avoid getting mugged in the first lap. Sure, you will still have bad starts, but it is still much more beneficial to start from the front rather than being guaranteed to have to fight your way through. Added to that is the higher risk that you will be involved in an incident that could take you out of the race or leave you with a lap one pitstop because of punctures or crushed front wings. It is crucial for the top teams to be able to conserve a fresh set of softs in Q1 (one wonders when Ferrari will finally realise this) but what is really spicing qualifying 1 and 2 up for me is the midfield battle. If Lotus continue on their upward curve, the Q1 dropouts will be a tight fight. Lotus will take the softs in Q1, so if their pace improves and the 2 second difference between hards/softs might even force much higher placed teams to burn a set of options if their pace is not quite there on the hards. The Force Indias already pulled a tactical move by going for hards in Q2, effectively relinquishing p 15 to Kovalainen (great to see Lotus in Q2 though not entirely on merit yet) but it did not help Force India out in the race as both drivers finsihed out of the points after an anonymous race. Schumacher didn’t do a lap in Q3 but despite getting ahead of Rosberg and staying there, it was clear that despite having more fresh tires he was holding up his teammate. This shows that simply foregoing quali is not really a viable option either.
Some say Q3 especially has become a boring affair compared to last year’s shootout, however as mentioned by Pat Symonds in the latest Fanvision Podcast, it has sort of taken us back to single lap qualifying. I for one love it. The drivers effectively get only one shot at nailing the perfect lap in Q3 if they don’t want to compromise their race strategy. This raises the excitement level from last year where anyone in Q3 had at least 2 runs on the softs, sometimes even 3 or 4 as they would pull out 2 consecutive hotlaps on one set of tires. With this new format, qualifying is less forgiving for the drivers. You make a mistake in your one lap, you are faced with the tough decision to either sacrifice a set of softs for a second run, or take the blow and start inP10 but conserve the tires. It will depend from Grand Prix to Grand Prix as to what the best option will be.
Qualifying is still very important, and like it was in previous years; positioning at the start and where you end up after the first lap will dictate your race. No matter how good you qualiify, if you get caught napping in the first lap there will be hell to pay. What makes this year so fun compared to previous years is that you can recover more easily from such setbacks, and not have situations like last year where once you were stuck behind a certain car, you’d be stuck there for the rest of the GP. Drivers may have it easier to fight through the field this year if they botch qualifying, but let’s not act like that never happened before (remember Alonso in Monaco last year after starting from the back). The fastest cars and drivers will still always rise to the top.