News that MotoGP’s Motegi race was facing delays had made its way to us here in the Indian Grand Prix’s media centre. The torrential rain and fog was unfortunate, but not something that we would have to worry about.
True enough, we haven’t seen a cloud yet, but that’s because it’s difficult to see anything due to the smog. On the journey into the circuit this morning you could only see 50 metres ahead – not an ideal situation when you have dogs, tuk tuks and cyclists all going in seemingly random directions. It didn’t phase our taxi driver, though, who maintained his 80mph approach speed to every roundabout. Apparently by taking them as fast as possible you’re on them for a shorter period of time and therefore out of harms way quicker.
Come 11am and the visibility wasn’t much better (it looked like someone had lit a bonfire nearby) and the decision was taken to delay the start of FP3 by 20 minutes. The drivers would probably have coped, but the medical helicopter certainly wouldn’t have, despite being well above the Indian traffic. Vettel continued as he left off yesterday by topping the time sheets, half a second ahead of Webber. Again, the session passed without incident bar some airborne action for Gutiérrez’s Sauber after he pitched it over one of the kerbs.
The Mexican was first out in the non-delayed first part of qualifying and while the usual pretenders at the back of the grid knew they had to set their Q1 time on the softer, and faster, of the two compounds, most thought they could make it through on the mediums. It soon became apparent that wasn’t going to be the case as the option was a second faster than the prime. Vettel did make it through on the mediums, but Grosjean – the only other man to attempt to do the same – didn’t manage a clean lap and was knocked out along with Maldonado, Bianchi, Van de Garde, Pic and Chilton. Grosjean was not impressed and, upon hearing the news, could only manage a deflated “no way”. “In hindsight,” said Lotus’ trackside operations director Alan Permane, “we made the wrong call with Romain. We expected him to progress quite comfortably through Q1 on the medium tyre and unfortunately this wasn’t the case.”
With the track improving all the time it was the McLaren of Button that ended the session on top – the first time the team has finished P1 in anything this year.
Having already used a new set of softs in Q1 most of the field would either have to try and eke out another quick lap on the same set in Q2, or use their second and final set. If they did the latter, they’d be left with either worn softs or new mediums in Q3. However, by saving the mediums until Q3 it would offer a different strategy whereby the could run a longer first stint in the race. With the mediums so much slower, though, they’d have to put up with a lower grid position.
Vettel had no problems in Q2, having only used the mediums in Q1, and posted an untouchable time on fresh softs of 1.24.568. Ricciardo, di Resta, Sutil, Vergne, Bottas and Gutiérrez were the next set of casualties and were all knocked out by the end of the 15 minutes. Any doubt about whether Vettel would get pole in the last part of qualifying was quickly snuffed out when he posted a 1.24.119, the fastest lap ever around the track. “The car just kept better and better throughout qualifying,” he commented afterwards.
Webber managed an impressive 1.25.047 on mediums and, until the last few minutes, it looked like he would join his soft-shod team-mate on the front row. It was Rosberg and Hamilton, however, who completed the top three. The other three drivers to use the medium compound in Q3 – Alonso, Pérez and Button – finished eighth, ninth and tenth respectively.
Almost all the drivers during qualifying had all four wheels off the circuit at some point (some spent much of the session off the Tarmac), which seemed strange considering that track limits are such a hot topic in motor sport at the moment. However, no penalties are being handed out because it’s not considered any quicker due to the dust off line.
Although Webber is on the second row he will be able to run long in his opening stint and should lead the race if all goes according to plan. It’ll then be up to Vettel to either overtake him on track or jump him in the pit stops. It wouldn’t normally be worth mentioning the strategy difference between two drivers when one of them is staring down the barrel of the World Championship, but Christian Horner will be hard pressed to implement team orders and get Webber to move over for Vettel… The German only needs a fifth-place finish, but he’ll desperately want to seal the title with a win.
Due to their superior downforce the Red Bulls can’t manage as many laps on the soft tyres as the other cars. However, even when you take this into account the Mercedes of Rosberg and Hamilton have their work cut out to stop a Red Bull one-two tomorrow.