Vettel takes Melbourne pole

26/03/2011
NEWS STORY

If this morning's final free practice session was anything to go by, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel don't need to worry about handing back their Constructors' and Drivers' Championship trophies at the end of the year. With the German finishing 0.857s ahead of his teammate it looks like 'business as usual' in 2011.

What was interesting is that McLaren maintained the form shown on Friday while Mercedes appeared to lose out to Renault. Williams had a bit of a nightmare, indeed, had the 107% rule applied Maldonado would have found himself not qualifying along with D'Ambrosio and the Hispania duo.

Tyre options this weekend are hard (prime) and soft (option) and this is when it gets interesting. Thus far the degradation has not been as bad as expected, then again, conditions have been better than expected. However, with three sets of each available for this session and tomorrow's race this is when the fun could begin.

Other than the tyres, the other thing we're waiting to see is the effectiveness of the movable rear wing (DRS) which should - according to the powers that be - really come into its own in this session and the race. Then again, there are many who regard it as a gimmick too far and, with an eye on the fact that the FIA appear to be changing the rules as they go along, hope it is dropped before too long.

As we await the start of Q1, the air temperature is 16 degrees C while the track temperature is 18 degrees. It remains overcast and quite windy though humidity is 65%.

Vitaly Petrov heads down the pitlane to get the first qualifying session of what will be a long, long season underway. He is followed by Heidfeld, Kovalainen, Trulli, Liuzzi and D'Ambrosio.

Fernando Alonso, for one, finds the going tough in his Ferrari as he skates his way around the circuit. He isn't alone as lots of the drivers are clearly struggling for grip. That said, most of the front runners are confident enough to run the harder compound Pirelli in the opening phase.

Liuzzi gradually brings his lap times down though the Hispania duo's pace is some way off its rivals, Karthikeyan wanders across the track forcing Virgin's Jerome D'Ambrosio to take avoiding action.

Ultimately however the pair are outside the 107%, Vettel's 1:25.296 setting the cut off at 1:31.266. Liuzzi got closest, though he was still 1.7s outside the time while Karthikeyan was a full three seconds off the pace.

Defying suggestions they wouldn't qualify both Virgin drivers have made the cut though D'Ambrosio cut it closer than he'd have liked, just 0.4s inside the required time.

Of those eliminated the surprise is Heidfeld in the Renault, well down on his teammate with a 1:27.239. It is a disappointing start to his Renault career, though it is a ringing endorsement for the ever improving Petrov.

So, at the end of Q1 we lose, Heidfeld, Kovalainen, Trulli, Glock, D'Ambrosio, Liuzzi and Karthikeyan.

Jaime Alguersuari is first out for Q2 closely followed by teammate Buemi. Barrichello follows the Toro Rosso pair however, a spin at the infamous Turn 3 after dropping a wheel onto the grass sees the Brazilian beached leaving him 17th for tomorrow's race.

Mark Webber emerges from the pits with twelve minutes of the session remaining, a set of soft boots on his car. However, the Australian only completes an installation lap before being pushed back into his garage by his crew.

Meanwhile Paul Di Resta, who has gone almost unnoticed in Q1, sets the third fastest time ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the McLaren. Responding, the 2008 World Champion, running the harder compound tyre, sets the third fastest time though some two seconds off the pace of the Toro Rosso at the top of the timesheets. Another lap sees the order change again, Hamilton this time leapfrogging the Toro Rosso's with a 1:25.522, just ahead of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes. A heavy lock-up for Hamilton going in to Turn 3 won't have helped his tyres however.

Not to be upstaged Button, who is the first to dip below 1:25, sets a 24.957. It triggers an immediate reaction from Red Bull, Vettel obliterating Button's time by 0.9s with a 1:24.090 followed by Webber with a 1:24.658.

In the danger zone Perez, Petrov, Kobayashi and the two Ferrari drivers, who have yet to post a time with five minutes remaining. Massa, his Ferrari squirming under the effort, sets his first hot lap of the session jumping straight up to sixth while TV replays show Nico Rosberg left nothing to spare at the exit of Turn 10 in his quest for eighth spot.

With the exception of the Red Bull drivers nobody is safe as the clock winds down. With two minutes remaining all but the Milton Keynes duo are on track.

There's a spin for Adrian Sutil as he exits the final corner, though fortuitously no damage is incurred, though he and teammate di Resta find themselves languishing at the wrong end of the timesheets.

A late lap by Hamilton moves him up to second ahead of Webber, while Schumacher crosses the line with seconds to spare as he sets out on a last gasp effort to qualify inside the top ten. His efforts fall tantalizingly short, the seven time champion joining Alguersuari, Perez, di Resta, Maldonado, Sutil and Barrichello on the sidelines for the final phase of qualifying.

A full minute elapses before Hamilton emerges from the pits to get Q3 under way, triggering Webber, Vettel, Button and Rosberg to follow suit.

With 7:20 on the clock, pushing hard, the 2008 champ locks up heavily going in to Turn 3, though his split times fail to show any drop in time on the back of the mistake.

Behind him on track Vettel is on a charge, setting fastest sector times as he rounds the Albert Park circuit, even running wide in the final turn isn't enough to stop him setting a time a full second quicker than Hamilton.

Webber moves up to second, though a full 0.8s off the pace of his teammate, while Rosberg is only capable of fifth place with his 1:25.512.

Buemi, Alonso and Kobayashi join the party, heading out on track as the session winds down. Buemi's initial flying lap is some way off the pace, 1.5s behind Rosberg, while Alonso curiously cruises round for what seems to be a second warm up lap.

With just over two minutes remaining frantic pit activity sees every car on track, including Massa who promptly makes a complete pig's ear of the first corner.

Continuing to impress Kamui Kobayashi steers his Sauber to within touching distance of Rosberg to finish just three-tenths behind the German in sixth.

Alonso however, seems to struggle. While setting personal bests his times are way off the pace of the Red Bulls, almost 1.5s in fact, and he is even unable to beat the times set by Hamilton and Button in third and fourth respectively.

With a late charge, Hamilton upsets the Red Bull show, leapfrogging Webber as he takes the chequered flag.

At the bottom end of the top ten Buemi sets his slowest time of all three qualifying sessions, perhaps looking to optimize his performance for the race while those ahead focus more on grid position. Kobayashi shows Sauber has a competitive package, while Petrov is a highly impressive sixth.

Therefore, Vettel will start from pole tomorrow, ahead of Hamilton, Webber, Button, Alonso, Petrov, Rosberg, Massa, Kobayashi and Buemi

"We keep on working, we do our thing," Vettel shouts over the team radio, "we are who we are!"

Quite.

Thing is, while the German and his team appear to have this one all wrapped neatly up, it's going to be worth watching how things actually pan out tomorrow.

To check out our Saturday gallery, click here.

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Published: 26/03/2011
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