It was a thrilling start to qualifying in Shanghai for the 2013 Chinese Grand Prix, with nearly ten minutes of silence and empty track before Jules Bianchi made his way out of the pits and kicked proceedings off in earnest.
With Q1 half over before it had even begun, teams were looking to their tyres and putting all their eggs in a single-lap basket where possible. Pirelli are predicting a two- or three-stop race not dissimilar to Melbourne, but the naysayers on the pit wall are portending rubbery doom.
The Mercedes pairing were the first of the front runners to set timed laps, and accordingly both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had their moment at the top of the timesheets, followed closely by the Mercedes-powered Force India pairing.
Once the rest of the pack crossed the line with their own timed efforts both Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta were forced down the order by the usual suspects from Ferrari and Red Bull, while McLaren saw both drivers in the top ten.
At the back of the pack, all eyes were on Jules Bianchi, who spent most of Q1 ahead of the Toro Rosso pairing in his slower Marussia. But Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo found the pace to make it through to Q2, knocking out Esteban Gutierrez and Valterri Bottas in the process.
Of particular interest in Q1was the tight run of times in the middle of the pack – P12 to P18 were covered by less than a second, while the gap from P17 Bottas to P22 van der Garde was a dramatic two seconds. Whatever happens at the front, Sunday’s race should see battling throughout the mid-field.
The second round of qualifying started in the more traditional fashion of a car actually leaving the pits, and Sebastian Vettel had the circuit to himself for a brief period before his rivals started pouring out of their garages.
It took Fernando Alonso to best Vettel’s first timed lap, beating the Red Bull driver by nearly a tenth. The gap between Vettel and teammate Mark Webber was a more dramatic 0.4s; the Australian found himself out-paced by both Ferraris and di Resta before stopping his car on track after being asked to save fuel. The instruction came too late – when Webber stopped at the hairpin, it looked as though his tank had run dry, leaving the Australian a sitting duck.
With times at the top changing regularly, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Kimi Raikkonen all looked strong, while Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean was still in the pits with no time on the board with three minutes remaining of the session. The Frenchman was banking on a single timed lap to see him through with a view to saving tyres for Sunday.
When the pitlane opened for Q3 it was Vettel who was once again the first man out on track. As the only Red Bull left running, the triple-world champion has double the pressure to secure yet another front row start. And for the first four minutes, Vettel had the track to himself. Rather than take advantage, however, he aborted his timed lap and returned to the pits.
Having started a lap, Vettel would be placed ahead of any driver that elected not to run – all nine of them. It was tyre saving the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
But with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, the pits emptied, with all ten drivers competing for empty track space with which to set their timed efforts.
The gamble didn’t pay off for Vettel – the German driver flat-spotted his front tyres, drove straight into the run-off, and aborted his timed lap. Hamilton claimed pole position with a 1m34.484s lap, sharing the front row with Raikkonen.
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1m34.484s
2. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 1m34.761s
3. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1m34.788s
4. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1m34.861s
5. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1m34.933s
6. Romain Grosjean (Lotus) 1m35.364s
7. Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso) 1m35.998s
8. Jenson Button (McLaren) 2m05.673s
9. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) NO TIME SET
10. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) NO TIME SET
11. Paul di Resta (Force India) 1m36.287s
12. Sergio Perez (McLaren) 1m36.314s
13. Adrian Sutil (Force India) 1m36.405s
14. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 1m36.679s
15. Pastor Maldonado (Williams) 1m37.139s
16. Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) 1m37.199s
17.Valterri Bottas (Williams) 1m37.769s
18. Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) 1m37.990s
19. Jules Bianchi (Marussia) 1m38.780s
20. Max Chilton (Marussia) 1m39.537s
21. Charles Pic (Caterham) 1m39.614s
22. Giedo van der Garde (Caterham) 1m39.660s By Kate Walker