Saturday, 23 August 2008

European Grand Prix Qualifying: Massa Masters the Streets of Valencia

Felipe Massa will start the first ever Grand Prix on the streets of Valencia's harbour from pole position after a perfect final lap knocked Lewis Hamilton off top spot by 2 tenths of a second. Of the drivers from the two big teams it was only really Massa and Hamilton who turned up to the party in the final qualifying session, with the Finns Raikkonen and Kovalainen back in fourth and fifth respectively. Robert Kubica put in an excellent performance to to take third, and could well be the cat amongst the pigeons as the three big title rivals stream down towards the crucial turn 2 on the opening lap.

After being bathed in glorious sunshine all yesterday the weather was decidedly gloomy and overcast for today's session. The spectre of rain loomed throughout the session, and there were brief spots of rain falling across the track at one point, but the track remained dry. The cool conditions definitely didn't suit the drivers too well though, as they struggled to get their tyres working in the early part of the session, particularly the option tyre.

In Q1 we had a real surprise in terms of the fastest man on track. Jarno Trulli was quickest despite missing out on this morning's practice session with mechanical problems. All of the major players got through without too much trouble, but there were surprises elsewhere too. Toro Rosso looked strong as they had done all weekend, but their big brothers Red Bull struggled badly. Coulthard failed to make it through, and Webber only just made it through. There was further disappointment for British fans as Jenson Button also dropped out. Button had looked pretty quick all weekend long, so it was a real surprise to everyone to see him joining team mate Barrichello on the sidelines for the rest of qualifying.

Q2 got underway with very light rain beginning to fall. It didn't last though, and didn't seem to make conditions any more slippery than they already were. The big story from this session was the massive disappointment for the Spanish fans as Fernando Alonso could only manage 12th fastest in the session. He had been looking reasonably strong all weekend, and would have certainly have expected to be making it through to the final session. However, on his final lap he ran wide coming out of the bridge section and skidded across the kerb losing him vital time, and probably giving him a sore backside in the process. With Piquet in 15th place this was pretty disastrous news for Renault, and also for the Valencia race promoters who would have been desperate to see Alonso doing well here.

At the front Sebastian Vettel continued his fantastic weekend and his impressive season so far by topping the time sheets. Could he be about to spring a real surprise in the final session? Sadly no, he couldn't quite maintain his head of steam in the final session. He put in a good performance to finish in P6, but a mistake on his final lap ended his chances of getting in amongst the big boys. Still, with Bourdais in a decent 10th place it was easily Toro Rosso's best qualifying performance yet. Hard to believe they are supposed to be one of the minnows of the F1 world, and a team that Dietrich Mateschitz is wanting to sell off.

After the first round of hot laps Ferrari were looking very strong. Both Massa and Raikkonen had put in strong laps, Kovalainen seemed to be struggling a little with his McLaren, and Hamilton made a costly error braking for the final turn that left him well adrift of the Ferraris. Hamilton knew he had to up his game in the final minutes, and he certainly rose to the challenge. He was the first of the major players to set his final flying lap, and he jumped straight to the top of the time sheets. The gauntlet had been very much thrown down to Kimi and Felipe. Raikkonen was first to step up to the plate, and he failed to impress, finishing well over two tenths shy of Hamilton. Kimi stayed on the prime tyre for his final lap, and I wonder whether he now regrets that decision.

The spotlight fell on Felipe Massa next, and he didn't disappoint. Running the softer option tyre he drove a completely clean lap and set a blistering time to take pole position by 2 tenths of a second. After his bitter disappointment in Hungary three weeks ago, this will have been the perfect tonic. Kubica was still out on track in the BMW, and he put in a great lap too. He squeezed out every last tenth the BMW had to offer, but it was only good enough for P3. Still an excellent performance from the Pole.

So Massa and Hamilton will lead the field on a voyage into the unknown tomorrow afternoon in the first ever Grand Prix start in Valencia. There is still some debate as to which side of the track will be the most favourable for the run down towards the opening turns, with some pundits claiming that starting in P2 may actually yield a better start. We'll have to wait and see, but one thing's for sure, Hamilton will be looking for a bit of revenge over Massa after the Brazilian got the jump on him at the start in Hungary.

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Massa
2. Hamilton
3. Kubica
4. Raikkonen
5. Kovalainen
6. Vettel
7. Trulli
8. Heidfeld
9. Rosberg
10. Bourdais
11. Nakajima
12. Alonso
13. Glock
14. Webber
15. Piquet
16. Button
17. Coulthard
18. Fisichella
19. Barrichello
20. Sutil

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