Saturday in Montreal, so qualifying day, with the emphasis finally on track action, rather than endless talk of Mercedes, Pirelli and FIA Tribunals. Alleluia!
For a second day, though, the weather was lousy, grey, cool – 15 degrees – and damp at best. At no stage of the day was the track close to completely dry, but it was at its quickest at the end of the morning’s practice session, when Webber’s Red Bull lapped in 1m 17.395s, three seconds off Alonso’s fastest time the previous afternoon.
Rain began to come down again just as qualifying was about to begin, and the track was plainly treacherous, Raikkonen going off the road on his warm-up lap, albeit without damage to the Lotus. In Q1 Massa was initially quickest, after which Hamilton, Rosberg, Alonso and Vettel all took turns at the top of the times, Sebastian finishing on top, with 1m 22.318s. There were many off-track excursions, and di Resta and Grosjean unexpectedly joined the Caterhams and the Marussias among those who didn’t make it to Q2.
The biggest surprise in the Q1 times was the presence, in fourth place, of Bottas’s Williams, and it was no freak lap, either, Valtteri maintaining this position in the second segment of qualifying, when the rain worsened, and times were around five seconds slower. Towards the end of Q2 Massa, trying desperately to make the top 10, crashed his Ferrari, hitting a tyre barrier sideways after braking on a white line. Felipe was quite unhurt, but the session was necessarily red-flagged. When it resumed there were but two minutes left, and everyone rushed out to get in one last flying lap. This time it was Hamilton, who headed the times, with 1m 27.649s, followed by Webber, Vettel, Bottas, Rosberg and a very impressive Vergne.
Conditions were a little better at the start of Q3, and Vettel rushed out first, setting a time – 1m 25.425s – which would remain unbeaten, for thereafter the rain picked up again, and although everyone made one run, then stopped for fresher intermediates, in the final few minutes no one went any quicker, and several drivers, including Webber and Alonso, ventured off-track in their efforts. At the very end Hamilton was on a lap around half a second up on Vettel, but unfortunately he was unable to get the Mercedes properly stopped for the final chicane, and skated over it.
Lewis was plainly not in good humour at the post-qualifying press conference. Had everything gone more or less to plan? “No,” he said, declining to add anything further, although later he allowed that “pole was definitely there”, and he was extremely disappointed to have missed it.
“Conditions today were really tricky,” said Vettel. “It seemed that the circuit changed from lap to lap, and it was so important to be out at the right time. The forecast for tomorrow seems to be better, but still it could be mixed conditions, apparently. Fortunately we had a dry session yesterday afternoon, so we’ve been able to learn about the tyres. If it’s damp again tomorrow… I don’t think anyone’s got any new intermediates left…”
Bottas went one better in Q3, setting third fastest time, and delighting everyone at Williams. “I really didn’t expect to be on the first or second row, so I’m very pleased,” he said, “but all of us in the team are hoping for rain tomorrow – I think that if the race is dry, it’s going to be very difficult for us…”
Fourth was Rosberg – off pole position for the first time since the Chinese Grand Prix. “I’m quite happy,” he said, “but unfortunately my radio stopped working, and I had no communication with my engineer – the biggest problem was not knowing I had one more lap that was a chance to improve my time…”
After setting the fastest time on the first day, Alonso was disappointed to be only sixth, but said he was not downhearted. “We’ve found with this car that when it’s cool, and we’re using intermediates, we’re not quite on the pace – and it seems to affect Lotus the same way. Some cars seem able to get heat into their tyres more quickly – but then in the race that works against them, and the tyres go off more quickly… I hope we get a dry race, and, starting sixth, I think everything is possible tomorrow. We were very happy with the car on long runs yesterday…”
The top 10 line up reads like this: Vettel, Hamilton, Bottas, Rosberg, Webber, Alonso, Vergne, Sutil, Raikkonen and Ricciardo. Two Red Bulls, two Mercedes, two Toro Rossos, and one each from Ferrari, Lotus, Williams and Force India. Grand Prix racing’s most unpredictable race awaits…