European GP: qualifying report

Today’s qualifying session for the European Grand Prix saw Sebastian Vettel take pole position in his Red Bull, followed by his team-mate Mark Webber. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton will be third on the grid for tomorrow’s race round the streets of Valencia’s docks area.

Hamilton was already conceding that the Red Bulls might have the measure of his team before Q1 started. “Red Bull are looking very competitive on their single-lap pace,” said the man from Stevenage. “But on race pace we hope to be closer.”

Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull, was quietly confident in his two charges. He told the BBC that the blown diffuser Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari had copied from the RB6’s design might not be any use “unless you’ve incorporated it into the whole package.” The inference was clear – we are still top dogs around here, and we are going to show it this afternoon.

As Q1 got under way it was the Williams pair who were impressing straight from the off. Nico Hulkenberg was the first to offer any real pace, with a 1m 39.758 around the sandy track. Home hero Fernando Alonso made an appearance with 13 mins of the first session remaining, and it was little surprise that he was immediately on the pace, displacing Jenson Button’s quick time of thirty seconds before. When Lewis Hamilton came out, fans were treated to the all-too-brief sight of the Englishman duelling with Alonso, swapping ultra-quick times.

As ever, though, that was before the Red Bulls came out. Vettel was a cool four-tenths quicker than Alonso on his first hot run, without, it seemed, having to try very hard. Meanwhile, Robert Kubica was looking good in the Renault, which had appeared from the in-car feeds to be glued to the track. For which, read quick. And quick it was, beating Vettel’s time by two-tenths at the second attempt. The Williams were still there or thereabouts though, regularly posting top-ten times.

Q1 drew down to the final minutes with one story only – that of ailing Mercedes GP cars. Michael Schumacher in particular was struggling – the in-car radio feed instructed all and sundry that he had a power steering issue, and his engineer asked him politely to drive around it. This is something Schumacher can still do, although with less panache that he exhibited, say, at Barcelona in 1995 when he ‘drove around’ a Benetton stuck in fifth gear. And so he squeaked into Q2, if in unconvincing fashion.

The victims of the first chop were Kobayashi, Trulli, Kovalainen, di Grassi, Glock, Senna and Chandhok, in that order. Kobayashi, after an ignominious end to his Canadian GP, could really do with an impressive performance, and palpably this wasn’t it. The others’ elimination was pretty much par for the course.

Mark Webber, having been relatively anonymous in Q1, started Q2 with the first good lap, a 1m38.041, and Vettel was not much behind following him. The Ferraris were also looking quick, Felipe Massa in particular appearing composed and fast. With eight minutes of the session to go, the top eight were covered by half a second. This group included the usual suspects plus the two faithful Williamses, still keeping tabs on the others. It was going to be close.

But not so close, still, for those Mercedes, looking as though the Q2 session would be the final act before raceday of what may well be a bad weekend. Schumacher was still in the drop zone with three minutes to go and Rosberg was too, and although the elder German could manage two quick sectors on his final effort, his last one was disastrous. He will start 15th tomorrow, with his young team-mate failing to recover from a locked outside wheel into the final corner to start 12th. The other victims were Buemi (11th), Sutil (13th), Liuzzi, Schumacher, de la Rosa and Alguersuari.

Q3 saw Petrov come out first. But Hamilton was the first man to set a time of note, beating Massa, Alonso and Button with a time of 1m37.969. It didn’t last long, though, because there was a marauding Red Bull out there in the hands of Mark Webber, which was a shade over a tenth quicker than Hamilton. Then peace reigned, as the cars withdrew to prepare for their final run. Alonso was first out to throw his final dice, and although he was very quick in the first sector, by the end of the lap he was two-tenths down. It looked like Ferrari had shot their bolt.

Vettel was the next of the big guns, with a 1m37.587 with 30 seconds of the session remaining. Nobody knew it yet, but this was to be the pole time, the German having matched Alonso in the first sector and bettering him in the other two. Hamilton was on a similar blinder at this point, but lost two-tenths in the middle sector and then sliding his McLaren chaotically into the hairpin near the end of the lap. That was to be his final offering. Webber, now, was the only man who could beat his team-mate, and the world waited with bated breath to see what the latest instalment of that titanic battle would be. Normal service was resumed – Webber was eight-hundredths down on his young nemesis. It really is that close between them.

And so the top ten looked as follows: Vettel, Webber, Hamilton, Alonso, Massa, Kubica, Button, Hulkenberg, Barrichello and Petrov. The Williams had done very well, and young Hulkenberg in particular, but none quite so well as Seb Vettel, who will be thrilled to be back as top dog. Just as his boss thought they would be.