In only his third qualifying session for Mercedes Lewis Hamilton has taken pole position for the Chinese Grand Prix. A great lap by Kimi Räikkönen meant that he will line up alongside the Brit tomorrow ahead of Alonso, Rosberg, Massa, Grosjean and Ricciardo. It was an outstanding session for the Toro Rosso driver, who lines up in seventh.
Behind him sits Button, who opted to cruise round in Q3 on a set of medium tyres to ensure that he doesn’t have to start on the quick-to-go-off softs. Vettel and Hulkenberg make up the top ten, both of whom didn’t set a time in the final session meaning that they can chose which set of tyres to start the race on.
Instead of watching all this in the media centre or out on track I was up in the BBC commentary booth. Rewind an hour and lead commentator Ben Edwards is rolling his shoulders, warming up for his first live qualifying session of the year. Pundit Gary Anderson is on his right, talking through potential cut off times for Q1, and to his right is their commentary box producer Tony Dodgins. Behind them all is myself, desperately trying to stay out of the way and not lean on the temperature control behind me. Or indeed get in the way of Anderson as he comes in and out of the booth throughout the session, dividing his time between BBC 5 Live and BBC TV.
As presenter Suzi Perry hands over to Edwards he starts his introductory speech – occasionally referring to his notes he sets the scene, not missing a beat when David Coulthard arrives fresh from the paddock build up. The fact that he’s not out of breath is more of an achievement than you might think in China for the only way to the commentary boxes, on the left-hand side of the pit straight, from the paddock, on the right, is via a rabbit warren of tunnels under the track. He looks slightly surprised to see me, but says hello and puts his headset on just in time to take over from Edwards.
Despite this being “one of the best commentary boxes of the season,” according to Coulthard, there’s barely room for us all. There’s a clear system, though: if Coulthard wants to say something he raises his hand, while if he sees something of interest he points it out on one of the four TV screens, one of two iPads or his own iPhone 5. Dodgins is listening to all the radio conversations and Post-it notes are passed swiftly down the line when an interesting radio call hasn’t been broadcast on TV.
It’s a slow start to Q1 as every team knows that even in this first session they’ll need to use the much faster soft tyres, of which they have a limited number. While a quick lap in Q1 might guarantee you a place in Q2, you may then suffer in that second session because the majority of the life of the fickle tyres has been spent. It’s a difficult game to play and while the usual two Marussias – which are looking relatively quick, especially in the hands of Bianchi – and two Caterhams fill the bottom four spots, the Williams of Bottas and Sauber of Gutiérrez also find themselves knocked out.
As Q2 begins both Edwards and Coulthard know exactly which drivers to look out for and it’s not an unusual sight to see the latter point out a potential Q1 driver heading out on track as the former is in full flow. It all changes when the TV feed shows the back of a stricken car with six minutes left of the session. Both Edwards and Coulthard peer at the picture, trying to identify who it is – it’s Webber with a fuel pressure problem and he’s only so far managed a 1.36.679 in this session. According to Anderson’s Q2 cut off prediction it won’t be enough. He’s right, and at the end of the 15 minutes Webber is left down in 14th pondering a possible start from the back of the grid if there isn’t enough fuel in the tank to be tested.
We always knew that Q3 would be divided – some teams would go for pole with the soft tyre, while others wouldn’t run, giving them the option of starting on either the soft or the medium compound. As the end of Q3 draws near, pole could go to either Mercedes driver, either Ferrari or perhaps a Lotus.
Even though the amount of information all three of the commentary team needs to process has doubled, none of them get flustered. A very quick lap by Hamilton gives him provisional pole, but we won’t know for definite until the rest of the runners have crossed the line. Edwards has his eye on the TV feed while Coulthard is monitoring the timing screens, occasionally pointing out a purple sector time.
Hamilton’s lap is good enough and once the feed has been passed back to Perry in the pitlane the excitement quickly subsides in the commentary box. Coulthard is already on the BBC radio system asking whether he’s needed in the paddock while Edwards and Dodgins pack up their notes, a job well done.
It will be a tricky race to commentate on as the front seven cars, on the soft tyres, will have to pit much earlier than those on the mediums. The first car on the more durable set is Button and while the McLaren looks much improved you wouldn’t put your money on him being able to stay in front of Vettel for too long. There’s only so much preparation that the BBC commentary team can do for the race, you never know what might happen, and that’s why you have to admire the work of Edwards and Coulthard.
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