Formula Mercedes put on a pretty good show on Saturday afternoon in what must surely now rank as the strangest venue at which F1 cars have ever performed. Nico Rosberg — annihilated a week ago — managed to throw the pressure right back at teammate Lewis Hamilton and will start tomorrow’s Bahrain GP on pole, ahead of Lewis.
Third quickest — third quickest and a long way ahead of Sebastian Vettel — was Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who won’t be taking up that second row place thanks to an un-safe release back in Sepang. Tough on Danny R, we say.
His place will be taken by Valtteri Bottas who finally got to show just how fast this year Williams really is in what was the first dry qualifying session we’ve had this year. Sergio Perez,in the Force India will line up alongside making it four Mercedes engines in the top four places. Behind them sit Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Jenson Button (McMerc), Felipe Massa (Williams), Kevin Magnussen (Mac…) and Fernando Alonso (do we need to) completing the top ten — pre-penalties. Only Nico Hulkenberg, surprisingly, didn’t get his Merc-powered Force India into the top ten.
All ten cars ran at least once, proving that the idea of cars getting an extra set of tyres for Q3 while starting the race on their Q2 tyres works. Sort of; the final session was extended to 12 minutes to ensure all cars did two runs. But so long as those Silver Arrows are going as fast as they are, what’s the point?
Regardless it was still a strangely enervating spectacle. Bahrain has always felt like a soulless venue from this end of a cathode ray tube, but that was just because it was, you know, Bahrain.
Anyhow, did we hear that all four Red Bull cars have new ICE units (the V6 bit without all the goodies) for this race, and that this is Renault’s first step as it attempts to reduce the horsepower gap to the Mercedes teams? We’re not entirely how sure that works given that Renault declined to apply for more time to homologate its Energy F1 unit earlier this year. In any case, it didn’t seem to make much difference.
The world champion didn’t make the Q3 mix and will only start in the top ten tomorrow because his team mate — who comprehensively out-qualified him again — has that shocking penalty from Sepang to endure. Red Bull had pulled out all the stops, winding the wing off, even playing its once-a-season gearbox ratios joker to boost the RB10’s top speed, but has little to cheer — Ricciardo’s speed aside — right now. Toro Rosso didn’t fair much better, failing to make the top for the first time this year. This is turning into a bit of a disaster for Renault.
Poor old Lotus then are meanwhile rapidly becoming the new HRT, consigned to keep Caterham and Marussia company in the Q1 club. Maldonado’s biggest impact on the weekend was a massive airborne moment yesterday which resulted in a kerb change for today’s qualifying. Teammate Romain Grosjean did at least make it through to Q2 despite a move — actually what looked like a serious move — that suggested the German had fallen back into habits of old. The two are with the stewards at the time of writing. It seems unlikely Sutil will escape without a penalty.