The first qualifying session for 2011 threw up some interesting results. As predicted, HRT failed to qualify either car. Liuzzi missed out on breaking into the 107% bracket by 1.7 seconds, however Karthikeyan missed the cut by over 3 seconds. I feel for Liuzzi, particularly given that the team failed to provide him with a car that could complete a lap prior to qualifying.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was just how dominant Sebastian Vettel was in the Red Bull RB7. He was 0.866 seconds faster than his team mate Mark Webber who was perplexed as to where Vettel was making up ground.
My theory is that Vettel is picking up the throttle much earlier than anyone else in the slow corners, particularly at the very slow turn 15 and using the exhaust gases to create more downforce through the blown diffuser than anyone else. As with last year, the blown diffuser requires a different style of driving and the drivers who adapt early will have an advantage that may well convert to championship points.
The other talking point for the Red Bulls is that neither Vettel nor Webber used their KERS system during their qualifying laps. Speculation in the paddock seems to centre around Red Bull using a lighter version only for the start of the race, but Red Bull Team Principal, Christian Horner, is keeping the KERS mystery under wraps, for the moment at least. However this could be a neat diversion tactic to distract the other teams and the media from the flexi front wings that the Red Bulls appear to be sporting again this year.
Other surprise results were the McLarens, who performed better than expected, with Hamilton starting 2nd and Button starting 4th. Fernando Alonso in 5th dragged the Ferrari further up the grid than the car seemingly deserved. Vitaly Petrov outshone his vastly more experienced substitute team mate, Nick Heidfeld, and will start the race in 6th position.
Rosberg qualified in P7, starting the year by bettering Schumacher to continue where he left off from 2010. Massa, qualifying in 8th managed to pull out a decent performance after an ordinary performance in the practice sessions that included a spin at turn 1. Kobayashi managed to qualify in P9 in the Sauber and Sebastian Buemi performed well to qualify his Torro Rosso in P10.
Michael Schumacher failed to make it to Q3 and qualified 11th. While this is a disappointing result for the 7 times world champion, by not finishing in the top 10 he is not required to start the race with the same set of tyres that he used to set his qualifying time and may well choose to adopt a different tyre strategy, starting the race on the hard compound tyres while the cars in front of him will be starting on the soft compound tyres.
Jaime Alguersuari is starting in P12 in his Toro Rosso. Sergio Perez qualified as best of the rookies and will start in P13 in his Sauber. Although his best time was set in Q1 with a time that would have taken him into the top 10 if he had set that time in Q2.
Paul Di Resta qualified in P14 in his Force India, beating his team mate in his first qualifying session after Sutil spun in the closing stages of Q2 that ruining his final two laps of the session. It was Sutil who provided the performance of the day, stunning the crowd with a beautifully elegant display of how to avoid the walls. Take note Karun! Sutil exited the final corner a little too wide, spinning up his rear wheels as he pushed out on full power to try and improve his qualifying time. The rear flicked out and his nose was heading directly for the pit wall when he jumped on the brakes, locking them up and utilising the momentum he had going down the main straight to avoid slamming into the pit wall, performing a smoky 360 degree spin before continuing in the right direction past towards the start/finish line. While this spin destroyed his qualifying run, Sutil’s reflexes and brilliant car control saved his car.
Pastor Maldonado made it into Q2 and qualified in 15th position in his Williams while his team mate, Rubens Barrichello could only make it to P17 after making a rookie error by locking up the rears under braking and spinning off into the gravel before he could set a competitive qualifying time. Yet again, the Williams team are facing a disappointing Australian grand prix.
Nick Heidfeld, in his Renault, qualified a disappointing 19th after being held up by Michael Schumacher in Q1.
Kovalainen and Trulli qualified 19th and 20th in their Lotus’ while Glock and D’Ambrosio both managed to qualify despite earlier fears that they would exceed the 107% benchmark and fill the final two grid positions.
Between the cool track temperature, tyre strategies, KERS, movable rear wings and a number of drivers starting out of position, the first race of the year is bound to be an interesting and exciting affair.