After a busy final practice session that ended with Lewis Hamilton damaging his car’s suspension when the Mercedes driver clipped a kerb it emerged that the Briton’s gearbox had also been a casualty of the incident.
The resulting unscheduled gearbox change landed Hamilton with a five-place grid penalty for tomorrow’s race. Also penalised for the Bahrain Grand Prix – following incidents in last week’s race in Shanghai – were Esteban Gutierrez and Mark Webber, both of whom admitted causing collisions. Gutierrez was handed a five-place grid drop for his clash with Adrian Sutil, while Webber lost three places for his run-in with Jean-Eric Vergne.
As qualifying got underway on Saturday afternoon the skies over the Bahrain International Circuit were cloudy and overcast, but the desert climes meant that track and air temperatures were unaffected, with the former standing at 41 degrees and the latter at 23 degrees.
The first driver to put a timed lap on the board in Q1 was Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, followed closely by teammate Esteban Gutierrez. But both drivers were knocked down the order as their rivals began to leave the pits, with Mercedes, Lotus, and Force India all showing strong early pace.
Last to leave the pits were the driver pairings from Red Bull and the still-struggling McLaren, plus Hamilton. The five had yet to put times on the board with the session more than half-run, with those confident in their pace doing their utmost to conserve much-needed rubber for Sunday’s race.
Hamilton’s first timed lap was a shocker, a 1m51.104s effort that was fifteen seconds slower than the Caterham of Giedo van der Garde. But the Mercedes driver’s second effort was a much more representative 1m33.498s.
When the chequered flag fluttered to mark the end of Q1, it was Pastor Maldonado and Gutierrez who joined the driver pairings from Caterham and Marussia in the dropout zone.
There was a slight variance to the teams’ approach in Q2, with Red Bull among the first drivers out of the pits. First to cross the line was Webber, setting a benchmark of 1m33.907s that was soon bested by teammate Sebastian Vettel, a full half second quicker than the Australian.
But Vettel’s time was improved upon by Paul di Resta, who was just over a tenth ahead of the defending world champion, the last man to stand on the top step of the Sakhir podium. As the session progressed, the occupant of the coveted top spot changed with increasing frequency – Fernando Alonso had his moment in the sun, as did Nico Rosberg.
Last to put a time on the board was Romain Grosjean. When the Frenchman crossed the line with a 1m333.762s, the dropout zone was made up of Jenson Button, Sergio Perez, Hulkenberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas, and Vergne. In the danger zone were Sutil and Kimi Raikkonen, with the Lotus not performing as expected.
Ricciardo saved himself – temporarily – just before the chequered flag fell, knocking Raikkonen into the dropout zone while the Finnish driver was on his last attempt at a timed lap. The Lotus driver found the necessary pace, and in so doing knocked his teammate out of the running. Button scraped through into Q3 in P10, while Perez was knocked out once again.
The final round of qualifying marked the beginning of the next round of criticism for McLaren newbie Perez, who has failed to perform to the level expected of a driver from a front-running team. While the Mexican racer impressed at Sauber, his move to Woking has been less than successful, and Perez is waning in the face of ever-increasing criticism that has led to paddock insiders questioning his ability to see out the season with McLaren.
The last ten men left standing in Q3 were the driver pairings from Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Force India, plus Button and Raikkonen. Webber and Hamilton were under additional pressure to perform in the final ten minutes, with both men hampered by grid penalties for tomorrow’s grand prix. But performance on Saturday – and the resulting grid position – must be balanced with the need to preserve rubber for the race itself, given the challenge of nursing tyres that have been pushed early in their life.
Rosberg was the early timesheet topper in the final stage of qualifying; the Mercedes driver was one of four men to set a timed lap in the first half of Q3. Alonso, di Resta, and Hamilton all put times on the board in the early stages, while Webber and Sutil waited until they had time left for only one lap before joining the fray.
The rest of the pack then followed suit, and the last two minutes of Bahrain qualifying saw all ten drivers out on track, fighting for a gap in traffic.
1. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1m32.330s
2. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 1m32.584s
3. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1m32.667s
4. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1m33.207s
5. Paul di Resta (Force India) 1m33.235s
6. Adrian Sutil (Force India) 1m33.246s
7. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 1m33.078s**
8. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 1m33.146s
9. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1m32.762s*
10. Jenson Button (McLaren) 1m33.327s
11. Romain Grosjean (Lotus) 1m33.762s
12. Sergio Perez (McLaren) 1m33.914s
13. Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso) 1m33.974s
14. Nico Hulkenberg (Sauber) 1m33.976s
15. Valtteri Bottas (Williams) 1m34.105s
16. Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) 1m34.284s
17. Pastor Maldonado (Williams) 1m34.425s
18. Charles Pic (Caterham) 1m35.283s
19. Jules Bianchi (Marussia) 1m36.178s
20. Max Chilton (Marussia) 1m36.304s
21. Giedo van der Garde (Caterham) 1m36.476s
22. Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) 1m34730s***
* Lewis Hamilton was issued with a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change, so will start the race in P9 despite qualifying in P4.
** Mark Webber was issued with a three-place grid penalty for causing a collision, so will start the race in P7 despite qualifying in P5.
** Esteban Gutierrez was issued with a five-place grid penalty for causing a collision, so will start the race in P22 despite qualifying in P18. By Kate Walker