Sebastian Vettel has thrown down the gauntlet to four world champions with his thrilling curtain-raiser at the Sakhir Circuit in Bahrain today, after parking his Red Bull neatly on pole and challenging the rest of the field to catch him – if they can.
The Newey-designed car has proved its thoroughbred pace over one lap. But, as all the top teams know, the race will be won on fuel and tyre efficiency and the car that goes fastest in qualifying may very well not be the one that succeeds in the crucial middle section of the race.
The big picture was broadly predictable with the new teams all excluded in the initial session and ‘big four’ of Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes all making it through to the final session along with a couple of midfield players.
But a closer look offered a number of surprises including Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, back after his injury lay-off, dismissing his seemingly-faster colleague Fernando Alonso to reach the front row of the grid. The pair will start the race second and third.
Jenson Button struggled to reach Q3 with a car that had fallen off the pace and ran at times more than a second slower than Lewis Hamilton’s. Both McLarens ran surprisingly sedately, surprising observers who had formed the view that the red and silver cars might be the dominant performers this weekend.
While Hamilton qualified fourth, Button is stranded in eighth as the slowest of the top teams’ drivers and he said after the race that McLaren would be hard at work attempting to discover what it was that “felt wrong” about his car.
Of course, maximising an unsatisfactory qualifying performance was one of the skills that led Button to last year’s driver’s championship, so his race should still be one to watch.
Another surprise was a tentative and uncomfortable Michael Schumacher who was consistently outperformed by his young Mercedes GP team-mate Nico Rosberg. The pair will line up fifth and seventh on the grid with around three tenths of a second separating them.
Mark Webber, unable to stamp his authority on the RB6 in the manner of team-mate Vettel, captured sixth place for himself.
Moving down to the midfield, the Williams team will be unhappy to have both drivers relegated in Q2 while Renault’s Robert Kubica and Force India’s Adrian Sutil were able to compete for the last two top-10 grid slots.
At the back the field resembled nothing so much as a multi-class sportscar event with a number of team effectively running different races on the same track.
Many competitors were unable to produce a lap time under two minutes and Karun Chandhok’s Hispania car only appeared on track to do the equivalent of the shake-down laps everyone else had completed in practice sessions weeks ago.
Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying
Times shown are the fastest for each driver in the latest session in which he competed.
- Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault: 1:54.101 (Q3)
- Felipe Massa, Ferrari: 1:54.242 (Q3)
- Fernando Alonso, Ferrari: 1:54.608 (Q3)
- Lewis Hamilton, McLaren: 1:55.217 (Q3)
- Nico Rosberg, Mercedes GP: 1:55.241 (Q3)
- Mark Webber, Red Bull: 1:55.284 (Q3)
- Michael Schumacher, Mercedes GP: 1:55.524 (Q3)
- Jenson Button, McLaren: 1:55.672 (Q3)
- Robert Kubica, Renault: 1:55.885 (Q3)
- Adrian Sutil, Force India: 1:56.309 (Q3)
- Rubens Barrichello, Williams: 1:55.330 (Q2)
- Vitantonio Liuzzi, Force India: 1:55.653 (Q2)
- Nico Hulkenberg, Williams: 1:55.875 (Q2)
- Pedro de la Rosa, BMW Sauber: 1:56.237 (Q2)
- Sebastien Buemi, Toro Rosso: 1:56.265 (Q2)
- Kamui Kobayashi, BMW Sauber: 1:56.270 (Q2)
- Vitaly Petrov, Renault: 1:56.619 (Q2)
- Jaime Alguersuari, Toro Rosso: 1:57.071 (Q1)
- Timo Glock, Virgin Racing: 1:59.728 (Q1)
- Jarno Trulli, Lotus F1: 1:59.852 (Q1)
- Heikki Kovalainen, Lotus F1: 2:00.313 (Q1)
- Lucas di Grassi, Virgin Racing: 2:00.587 (Q1)
- Bruno Senna, Hispania Racing F1: 2:03.240 (Q1)
- Karun Chandhok, Hispania Racing F1: 2:04.904 (Q1)