With its tight corners and looming walls, there’s little chance of overtaking out on track – so a good qualifying session here is paramount if drivers want any chance of performing well in the race on Sunday.
The drivers had already had a busy time out on track in free practice three this morning – the session was red flagged after Massa crashed out, with Grosjean and Sutil also plunging into the barriers during the hour-long practice run.
While the damage to Sutil’s car was minimal, Ferrari and Lotus faced a race against time to fix their drivers’ cars and get them back out on track again before the end of Q1. It was clear the damage to Massa’s car was serious, and he was given a five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox before the session even started.
As Q1 got underway, rain was starting to fall heavily, so the drivers were tentative as they headed out onto track. The cars hadn’t even finished their installation laps before the yellow flags were out as a result of Jules Bianchi stopping out on track with an engine problem. His car was quickly recovered to the pits, with the Frenchman having not even set a provisional time.
As the remaining cars headed out, overcrowding on the narrow track wasn’t the only problem they faced. With the rain still hammering down, even the front runners were lapping about 20 seconds off the pace on the inters, and it was clear there’d be no chance to go onto the slicks before the session came to an end.
Despite the earlier damage to his car, Sutil made it out onto track early on in the session – although it wasn’t long before he spun at Mirabeau, joining a handful of other drivers forced to use the escape road to avoid a costly accident.
With four minutes of the session left to go, Lotus finally got Grosjean’s car fixed and back out on track, and he quickly set the fastest time. But with the track drying out, everyone else was getting faster too. The session ended with Maldonado quickest, and Caterham’s Giedo Van der Garde going through into Q2 for the first time this year.
Sadly his teammate Pic wasn’t so lucky – he finished 18th, and joined Di Resta, Gutierrez, Chilton and Bianchi in the drop zone. As it turned out, Massa’s grid penalty was of no consequence as he never made it out onto the track, and awaits a decision from the stewards about whether or not he’ll be able to start the race from the back of the grid.
As the second part of qualifying kicked off, the Red Bulls and Mercedes wasted no time heading out on track, with reports suggesting that more rain could be on the way. Rosberg was first to set a time, which was still about 20 seconds off the pace – but with Hamilton and the Red Bulls quickly going five seconds faster, it was clear that track would soon be dry enough for slicks.
Van Der Garde was the first to switch to the dry tyres, with many of the pack quickly following suit. And as the times tumbled, it was clearly the right decision. With three minutes to go, there was a scramble to get into the pits for slicks, and the likes of Alonso and Raikkonen almost ran out of time to set a fast lap on the dry tyres.
The session ended with Vettel on top, and Q1’s fastest driver, Maldonado, at the bottom of the timesheets. Hulkenberg, Ricciardo, Grosjean, Bottas, and Van der Garde joined him in being eliminated from the final run.
With the track now almost dry, the scene was set for an exciting end to the qualifying session. Raikkonen was the first out onto track, quickly followed by the other nine cars, all opting for the super soft tyres. Toro Rosso’s Jean Eric Vergne was delighted to make it into Q3 for the first time ever, eventually ending the session in tenth place.
Hamilton, Rosberg, Webber and Vettel were soon trading quick times, while Button was frustrated to suffer a power failure on his car, leading to him being out qualified by teammate Perez. As the chequered flag dropped, Hamilton’s fastest lap was quickly surpassed by teammate Rosberg – and Vettel’s best efforts could only muster third. As Webber and Raikkonen abandoned their final laps, Rosberg celebrated his third pole position in a row – cementing yet another Mercedes front-row lock out.
1. Nico Rosberg – Mercedes – 1:13.876
2. Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes – 1:13.967
3. Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull – 1:13.980
4 .Mark Webber – Red Bull – 1:14.181
5. Kimi Raikkonen – Lotus – 1:14.822
6. Fernando Alonso – Ferrari – 1:14.824
7. Sergio Perez – McLaren – 1:15.138
8. Adrian Sutil – Force India – 1:15.383
9. Jenson Button – McLaren – 1:15.647
10. Jean-Eric Vergne – Toro Rosso – 1:15.703
11. Nico Hulkenberg – Sauber – 1:18.331
12. Daniel Ricciardo – Toro Rosso – 1:18.344
13. Romain Grosjean – Lotus – 1:18.603
14. Valtteri Bottas – Williams -1:19.077
15. Giedo van der Garde – Catherham – 1:19:408
16. Pastor Maldonado – Williams – 1:21.688
17. Paul Di Resta – Force India – 1:26.322
18. Charles Pic – Catherham – 1:26.633
19. Esteban Gutierrez – Sauber – 1:26.917
20. Max Chilton – Marussia – 1:27.303
21. Jules Bianchi – Marussia – no time set
22. Felipe Massa – Ferrari – no time set*
*Massa is still waiting confirmation that he’ll be able to start from the pit lane after failing to make it out onto track for qualifying. By Sarah Ellis