You might have thought — after that kerfuffle over the strategies in Japan — that Red Bull would have gone out of its way to ensure parity between its champion-elect and next year’s works Porsche Driver. But it didn’t. Sebastian Vettel will start tomorrow’s Indian Grand Prix from pole on soft tyres, Mark Webber from fourth on mediums. Between them — but an age behind on the track — Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. Behind them, Webber, Felipe Massa, Kimi Räikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg all qualified on softs.
Why, then, did Webber qualify on mediums?
For this race Pirelli brought the soft tyres alongside the mediums to ensure the race would be one for the bold. But they could not have known the track, unused for the last 12 months, would have remained quite so grippy. As a result the softs are pretty much an old-school qualifying tyre, allowing only a slow out lap, a flyer and then a slow in. The mediums, meanwhile, are proving to be as durable as the softs are fragile. Qualifying this morning then was a straightforward strategic race choice: the teams and drivers could plump for a grid advantage and a super early stop, or a slight disadvantage but the chance to run a little longer and undercut the soft starters.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and the McLarens of Sergio Perez and Jenson Button rounded off the top ten, all of them not even trying to compete with Vettel, and pretty much in their own race with Mark Webber. All the usual suspects at the front of the grid then.
Meanwhile India has never been kind to its home team and neither Paul di Resta (who also had a dose of Delhi Belly to contend with), nor Adrian Sutil, made it out of Q2 in their Force India. Neither did the Toro Rossos, Daniel Ricciardo a little quicker than Jean-Eric Vergne but once again not showing his current or future employers anything particularly special. Still, all four cars will be able to start on those mediums so have every chance of being part of the leading group before lap ten.
Meanwhile in Q1 Romain Grosjean was the story, the team managing to ‘do a Di Resta’ on their superstar ensuring that after two starts at the very front of the grid (and two podiums) he’ll have to start this at the very back, alongside Maldonado and just ahead of the Marussias and Caterhams (Jules Bianchi grabbing honours there). Lotus and Grosjean opted not to run the softs in Q1 (only Vettel joined them), for reasons that eclipse us.
Big Gary Anderson is convinced the RB9 goes the least easy on that capricious rubber; the Lotuses and even the Mercs are therefore less likely to have to make a tricky call and surrender a lead for a place in the pack as early as lap two. It was certainly interesting that Vettel, having secured the pole with a record lap in the opening moments in Q3, then went on to carefully cure an extra set.
All this will make the opening two segments of the race worth getting out of bed for, but it’s hard not to image Vettel being able to do at least the minimum required: fifth at the flag. Remember, the RB9 is as fast on the medium tyre as the others are on the softs.
So, to tomorrow and the inevitable coronation of the new/old king. The Indian Grand Prix has been trying very hard not to happen all weekend, what with legal proceedings over unpaid taxes to be defended on Friday, and a shortened Free Practice Three this morning when smog stopped the medical helicopter getting off the ground, but fingers crossed. It’s a 9.30 start, and that’s GMT remember. BST — better known in F1 as RBST — ends tonight.