Saturday, 10 May 2008

Turkish Grand Prix: Qualifying Report

Istanbul specialist Felipe Massa notched up his third successive Turkish Grand Prix pole position with a consummate display for Ferrrai. It wasn't all glory for the Scuderia as McLaren took second and third place on the grid with a strong performance, leaving World Champion Kimi Raikkonen in fourth. The top two teams seemed to be in a class of their own as fifth place man Robert Kubica was over four tenths of adrift of Raikkonen.

The session got underway in cooler than expected conditions with crosswinds potentially causing problems in some of the Istanbul circuit's extremely high speed corners. With the withdrawal of the Super Aguri team the qualifying rules were re-jigged somewhat, meaning that just five cars would be eliminated in the first two sessions. This may at first seem an advantage for the remaining teams, but in reality the Super Aguri's were always virtually guaranteed to be eliminated in the first session anyway. This means that now there is increased potential for someone from the more established teams to drop out in the first session if they make a mistake.

The big losers with the loss of Super Aguri will probably be Force India as they are now going to be odds on favourites to be filling the back row of the grid at every Grand Prix, and so it proved to be here as Sutil and Fisichella were the two slowest cars in the first session. They were joined on the sidelines by Sebastien Bourdais in the Toro Rosso, but also surprisingly by Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet. Nakajima had looked strong earlier in the weekend so will be extremely disappointed with his performance today. Piquet though was the worst performer in qualifying today.

At the start of the season in Melbourne Piquet had the excuses that he was struggling with a poor handling car, and that he was driving a completely unfamiliar circuit. Now though he has a Renault that is performing very strongly and is driving circuits that he has driven plenty of times before. He is fast running out of excuses and has nowhere to hide after that dismal display.

The stars of the first session were Timo Glock and Sebastian Vettel. Vettel impressed simply by making it to the second session in the Toro Rosso, and Glock impressed with an excellent P4. However, neither driver could replicate the magic in Q2. Glock especially disappointed by somehow ending up last of the 15 remaining runners, behind Vettel even. The guy clearly has pace but needs to build much more consistency into his driving.

They were joined in the drop zone by the two Hondas of Button and Barrichello and the Williams of Rosberg. Honda seem to have struggled a little this weekend after a couple of really promising displays in the last few races. Williams too are struggling a little and are dropping further behind midfield rivals like Renault and Red Bull. They are struggling to live up to their pre-season form.

Coulthard put in an excellent lap in this session to get through to the final shootout for the first time in a while. It had been reported by some that he was under pressure from the team after a couple of poor races. He certainly answered a few of those critics with his performance today. He eventually finished in 10th place on the grid but will be encouraged by this showing. In fact, the whole Red Bull team will be encouraged after Mark Webber put together an excellent lap to take P6 in the sister Red Bull.

In between the two Red Bulls were Fernando Alonso, showing Renault's big improvement in pace, qualifying specialist Jarno Trulli, and Nick Heidfeld in ninth. It was a disappointing performance from birthday boy Heidfeld, and capped a pretty disappointing day for BMW all round. They were expecting to be able to challenge the Ferrari and McLaren drivers for places on the front two rows, but in truth were no where near. After a superb start to the season it seems that maybe the BMWs are struggling to live with the pace of progress at the pointy end of the grid.

There were a couple of points of real interest in the final minutes as the big boys went for the glory. Firstly, Lewis Hamilton looked to be having all sorts of balance problems in the daunting turn 8. He had a massive slide on one hot lap, and did brilliantly to even stay on the track at all. This was on the harder, prime tyre so it was expected that he would make the switch to the softer option tyre for his final run. Lewis surprised everyone however by sticking on the harder compound for his final lap. He apparently felt that the softer tyre was losing performance by the end of the lap and preferred to run with the hard. He drove an excellent lap and put his McLaren 3rd despite still fighting the car all the way through turn 8. His teammate showed what the McLaren could do on the softer tyre though by putting together an excellent lap to get onto the front row of the grid alongside Massa.

Kimi Raikkonen was unable to challenge the McLarens or his teammate after running into trouble on his final lap. There seemed to be a miscalculation from Ferrari in terms of getting Kimi some clean air on track, and he ended up catching Fernando Alonso's Renault in the middle of his hot lap. He undoubtedly lost a tenth or two negotiating his way past the Spaniard and his chance at pole was gone.

With Kimi's traffic problems and Hamilton's unusual decision to go with the harder tyre it is hard to get a good read on the fuel loads of the top four runners, so we will have to wait until tomorrow's first stint to see how things pan out. The McLaren team will see this as a perfect opportunity to hit back at Ferrari with Kovalainen and Hamilton both with the chance to pressure Felipe Massa off the start line. We have seen Massa crumble under that sort of pressure before, but this is the track that he appears to be the most comfortable on so he should have enough in reserve to hold off the silver cars. We shall see...

Qualifying Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:27.617
02 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:27.808
03 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:27.923
04 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:27.936
05 R. Kubica BMW 1:28.390
06 M. Webber Red Bull 1:28.417
07 F. Alonso Renault 1:28.422
08 J. Trulli Toyota 1:28.836
09 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:28.882
10 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:29.959
11 N. Rosberg Williams 1:27.012
12 R. Barrichello Honda 1:27.219
13 J. Button Honda 1:27.298
14 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:27.412
15 T. Glock Toyota 1:27.806
16 K. Nakajima Williams 1:27.547
17 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:27.568
18 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:27.568
19 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:27.807
20 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:28.325

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