Saturday, 21 June 2008

French Grand Prix Qualifying: Ferrari lock out the front row in France

Kimi Raikkonen led home Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa to score a fairly comfortable front row lock out for tomorrow's French Grand Prix. With Hamilton receiving a penalty and BMW looking strangely out of sorts it was always looking likely to happen. The only man you would have thought was capable to stop him was Heikki Kovalainen, but he wasn't able to step up to the plate and spoil Ferrari's party, much to the disappointment of McLaren. In fact it was Fernando Alonso who got closest to stealing the headlines from the Scuderia, putting in a great performance in front of the Renault fans.

After stunning the F1 world with a 1-2 finish in Canada last time out, perhaps the biggest talking point of the days events will be the poor showing of the BMW team. They struggled from the beginning of the very first session with understeer problems on corner entry and oversteer on exit. On a short track like Magny-Cours where the cars are very closely matched in terms of time throughout the field, those tenths of a second that slip through your fingers when struggling to get a car locked on to an apex are crucial. Heidfeld struggled to make it through even the first session, and then ended up 12th in the second. Kubica was lucky to make it through to the final ten, although he did recover to finish 7th (effectively 6th after Hamilton's penalty).

BMW's disappointment was good news for the likes of Renault, Toyota and Red Bull. Fernando Alonso finished fourth (net third) to delight the French fans. Perhaps Renault have fuelled him light and put him on a three stopper to snatch a few headlines, but it's still a decent performance from Alonso who is driving on top form here this weekend. Toyota really pulled it out of the bag today with a very strong performance from Trulli. It's always hard to work out what's going on with Toyota as they are the masters of inconsistency; one race they're average, one race they're poor, then the next race they're up on the second row!

Another team that would have expected to profit from BMW's woes is Williams, but they really disappointed today. After all the early season optimism and Rosberg's podium at Australia things really seem to be fizzling out for them, with Rosberg and Nakajima in 15th and 16th respectively. Still, at least they aren't Honda! They are really struggling badly at the moment. Perhaps the worst part of all is that neither driver is complaining of any problems with the cars or any handling difficulties. Their car drives well, but they're just plain slow.

Honda and indeed Williams look to have been overtaken by the Toro Rosso team, who have really got their new car firing well. It's a mark of how far they've come when they are disappointed at the fact that they didn't get Vettel into the final session. They'll just have to settle for 13th and 14th, which is still a very respectable finish for a team of their size and resources.

With Lewis Hamilton knowing that wherever he finished he would drop 10 places the final session was as much about strategy for McLaren as it was about outright pace. It seems likely that Hamilton will run a 3 stop strategy and try to stay lighter than his rivals throughout the race. Hamilton will have wanted to finish first on the timesheets, with Kovalainen also looking strong in order to try and disrupt the Ferrari's plans. As it was, Hamilton finished a decent but slightly disappointing 3rd (net 13th) and Kovalainen a very disappointing 6th. There is very little Heikki can do to influence the race from the third row, barring some kind of miracle first lap. He'll have a tough enough job just getting past the likes of Alonso who is clearly running a little light.

So after a pretty faultless performance from Massa and Raikkonen it is Ferrari's race to lose. Unless they manage to take each other out at the first hairpin there should be little to stop them scoring a 1-2 finish. The only thing that could really throw a spanner in the works from them is the potential of thunderstorms. Rain always makes things unpredictable in racing, and there is a strong possibility of safety cars in those kinds of conditions, which could play into the hands of the likes of the McLarens. Either way though, you'd be a fool to bet against a red car taking the chequered flag tomorrow.

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