Saturday, 22 March 2008

Malaysian Grand Prix Qualifying Report

Felipe Massa will start tomorrow's Malaysian Grand Prix from pole after an imperious display from the Ferrari team in qualifying. He will lead off with his teammate alongside him, with their archrivals in the McLarens locking out row 2. That is, unless the McLaren drivers end up getting penalised... The qualifying session began with the threat of rain looming large. Fernando Alonso was warned that rain was predictied to hit just seven minutes into the first of the three qualifying sessions. Thus a fast and furious qualifying session began as the drivers were desperate to get out there and get their laps in the bag for the ever elusive rain hit. Alas, the rain didn't come until literally moments after the grid had been decided, but it had no impact on the session.

The first session passed without real incident until the final moments of the session when Sebastien Bourdais saw his Q2 hopes ended with yet another brake failure for the Toro Rosso/Red Bull teams. The battle to get through to Q2 was a frenetic one in the dying moments as the order was constantly changing as each car crossed the line. Numerous drivers looked to be in trouble as Fisichella in the Force India threatened to cause a real upset. He looked as though he had managed it for an all too brief moment until Rubens Barrichello just squeezed out his fellow veteran for the last ticket to the party. Unlucky for Fisi, hopefully it's only a matter of time until the former Jordan team can get at least one car through.

The second session was the chance for Ferrari to really show their pace on low fuel loads. Raikkonen in particular was hugely impressive, leaving the rest trailing in his wake. Someone who definitely looked to be struggling to live with the Scuderia's pace was Lewis Hamilton who had to take an extra set of tyres to put in a third run to make sure that he would even make it through to the final session. We learned after the session that Hamilton had decided to change a few things with his set-up overnight, but whatever changes he had made seemed to have a negative impact throughout all three qualy sessions. Not Hamilton's finest hour.

The battle to get through to the final session wasn't quite as closely fought as the first session with young Germans Rosberg and Vettel both having disappointing showings. The weak pace of the Williams was one of the surprises of the day as they finished a fairly woeful 16th and 18th place, with Nakajima due to start last after his penalty from last week's race. Barrichello, Piquet and Coulthard didn't really get that close to making it through so it was down to Button versus Glock versus Alonso. Button was the man to lose out, by less than a tenth of a second in the end. However, when spoken to after the session he seemed delighted with 11th and with his performance, confident in the knowledge that he could not have wrung any more performance out of his Honda.

So the final session began with the rain still holding off, and with Kovalainen and Hamilton leading the field out onto the circuit. We could immediately see from the early laps that the battle was to be between the two Ferrari drivers as they looked in a different class to everyone else. As the two red cars duked it out for pole it became apparent that Massa was running lighter than Kimi as he was able to record a lap almost a half a second faster than the World Champ. The McLarens both slotted in to the second row with Kovalainen beating his teammate for the first time this season, capping a fine weekend so far for the Finn.

Trulli put in a fine lap to take fifth and was probably the star of qualifying all things told. The other driver who looked capable of pushing the McLarens was BMW's Nick Heidfeld. Things turned sour for him in the final moments of the session is what was a rather bizarre and controversial sequence of events. It seemed that most drivers had gone out for their final runs a minute or two earlier than usual doe to the impending rainfall. Not so the BMW of Heidfeld and Alonso's Renault, who left things to the last minute for a more traditional last gasp dash for the chequered flag. Unfortunately they both came across horrendous traffic on the track as the other cars were chugging around at crawling pace to try and save fuel. People mostly did their best to stay out of the way, but Heidfeld caught the two McLarens almost parked on the racing line in the braking zone for the tricky turn 4. His hot lap was severely compromised and it cost him a possible second row finish. If BMW appeal they will have a very strong case for seeing both McLaren drivers penalised.

Clearly there was no malice or forethought in the McLaren driver's actions, it was just pure carelessness on their part. A rather silly lapse in concentration from the team and the drivers, and it could prove extremely costly if they end up with grid place penalties. It wasn't just that it messed up Heidfeld's single lap, it would have made a mess of his whole strategy as he was probably running light hoping to bag a good grip spot. He can't change his fuel load now, and his race will be severely compromised. Rotten luck for the on form German, and a poor show from McLaren. Even if the drivers didn't see his coming they should have been given plenty of forewarning from their team.

So the grid for tomorrow's race has a decidedly familiar look about it with Ferrari domination looking likely to be the order of the day. McLaren and others may well be praying that the highly unpredictable Kuala Lumpur weather throws in a few surprises and can upset the form book somewhat. Personally I'd love to see some rain tomorrow to really sort the men out from the boys now that we have no traction control. Come on God, do us a favour!

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