10 Nov 2018
Heat shimmered off the asphalt in the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, in Sao Paolo, Brasil, as track temps were nearing 50C° as the start of qualifying for the Brasilian Grand Prix drew near whilst off in the distance, coming ever closer, massive banks of dark clouds roiled, threatening yet again to upend all the hard work of the teams over the last 2 days. This was, in some ways, the perfect metaphor for qualifying after a torrid stretch for alternatively Ferrari and then Mercedes, the world was regaining a familiar shape as the results from FP3 had Vettel slightly ahead of Hamilton and Red Bull once again looking like it might be split by a HAAS driver, but with many questions looming....
Hamilton's car had a mechanical problem at the start of his first run, which was repaired in reasonable time but still cost him his originally planned running and left him occasionally belching smoke from his exhaust in an alarming fashion, but apparently not a serious thing judging by the mien of his engineers, at least after he made it round the track the first time without a terminal failure.
Raikkonen and Bottas were locked in their own private battle, as it turns out there is just 9 points between them for sole possession of 3rd place in the WDC, with Raikkonen ahead at the moment. In the Formula B battle with a 12 point lead Hulkenberg looked fairly tight for best of the rest, but K-Mag was just 4 off Perez for P8, and Alonso just a further 3 points back. Given the stochastic nature of the midfield the last 2 races will be nail biters for the teams and drivers involved as sponsors for the coming seasons will no doubt be wooed vigorously with the results a rather large carrot.....
Both Ricciardo (turbo) and Ocon (gearbox) were nailed with 5 spot dingers for bolting on replacement parts, Ricciardo's the result of his non-finish in Mexico, the vigorous application of the fire extinguisher, well, extinguishing his chances (forgive me)...
Sector times show a significant Mercedes advantage in S2, which is the twisty one, whilst Ferrari dominate S1 and S3. It's possible that Merc are starting to lose the rears a bit by the end of the lap in the higher temperatures, and worth noting, despite Toto Wolff's denials, that Mercedes AGAIN choose not to run their new trick rims with the cooling (or aero, depending on your loyalties) holes in them, and again, without them, are behind the Scuderia, in the dry, natch.... Of course, the real impact will show up more in the race than over the course of a single lap, but should Mercedes struggle again, well, correlation and causation etc., but the data is piling up very rapidly that without them, Mercedes looks far more vulnerable than with them...
Green Light!! With the clouds ever closer, there was a queue at the end of pitlane as the track opened, the track temps had dropped to the mid 30's and contra usual procedures, with rain in the offing both Ferrari and Mercedes were amongst the hoi polloi. Bonnington told Hamilton on the radio rain was expected and it was Bottas first off on his hotlap with everyone on the Supers. Hamilton was purpling the sectors behind him, and behind him it was Raikkonen even faster, until he made a mistake in the final corner. Nevertheless, he was still a wee bit faster than the Mercedes, but it was Verstappen who had the first properly good lap, with a 1:08.205. Leclerc had a remarkable outing, going P6 just 0.3 seconds slower than Ricciardo and it was Vandoorne, Sirotkin, and Stroll on the outside, looking in as the Toro Rossos were yet to set a time.
Gasly P15 and Hartley P17 and with 10 minutes left to go, it was Bottas who was furthest off, as he was blocked going into the final turn on his fast lap and drops were reported on the outside of turn 12, and it was turn on the lights dark over the backside of the track. On the Supers, 2nd efforts were not making much of a difference, even as fuel was being burned off.
8 minutes to go and the track was still alive with activity, Perez up to 10th as the usual interlude was simply not going to happen thanks to the weather. Grosjean to P8 with his run and then it was Sirotkin, ahead of Ocon for the moment and up to 13th. Leclerc nudged ahead of Grosjean and Hulkenberg was up to P11 as the names were bouncing up and down the board with alarming rapidity.
Ocon was on it, big lockup into T10 but still managing P14 and putting Alonso out with 5 minutes left and the weather worsening according to Hulkenberg who reported heavier rain over the back of the circuit, on turns 4 and 12. Gasly was on the radio and his call was "it's raining, it's raining," followed by a long bleep, the sound of someone who's left it a bit too late in P17. Still, it was P12 at the end of the day, and there was time still to be found.
Under 2 minutes and it was now Sainz in P17, with it all to do, while Alonso on the radio amusingly asked to be told when people started going off. P16 for Sainz and that was the end of that, as he lacked the resource to put in another full push lap. Stroll improved massively from P20 to P19 (yes, I couldn't resist), making Vandoorne the lanterne rouge.
Sainz, Hartley, Alonso, Stroll and Vandoorne were done for the day off in search of some Pao de Queijo whilst the rest turned it around for Q2. Notable for other reasons, Kmag pulled off a P5, ahead of both Ricciardo and Bottas, with Leclerc ahead of Grosjean in P8 and Renault looking not particularly competitive at this circuit.
IT was again a mad rush for the pit exit at the start of Q2, with the rain there or thereabouts, and Leclerc ready to be first off, Trailed by Ericsson, Kmag and Grosjean and Hulkenberg. Supers for all, the imminent rain putting the kibosh on the plans for Ferrari and Mercedes to try and sneak through on the Softs to Q3. 4 minutes to rain, one and done then for the shot at the ultimate glory of Q3. Raikkonen was in, along with Vettel and Ferrari was quick to pull the strategy switch, and both Ferrari's were in for the Soft tyre. Meanwhile, it was Ericsson fastest of the first bunch, with the top teams pounding towards the line. Bottas, Hamilton, Verstappen, then, in that order as Ferrari were dragging around on their outlaps on the Softs, rain increasing every second. Bang, off went Raikkonen, and the rains held off, up to P4 as Red Bull was into the pits and copying the strategy of Ferrari. Vettel, on the Softs, up to P2 as the Softs seemed to be working better on the cool track.
8 minutes to go and Hamilton just about took out Sirotkin, moving directly in front of him as the Williams headed for the final turns and the start of a push lap. Verstappen just missed improving on his Super soft time and Ricciardo, too was unable to best his banker, meaning only Ferrari would have the advantage on starting on the Softs. Kmag managed to improve with 7 minutes left, up to P10 and then it looked as if the track conditions crossed, with no one able to improve as the track got greasier and greasier.
4 minutes to go and Leclerc, Perez, Ocon, Hulkenberg and Sirotkin looked done, off for caipirinhas early, with the track done for the session even with time left. Mercedes, too, had a go on the Softs, but the track was too slippery and even prior to ruining Sirotkin's lap, Hamilton was slithering about demonstrating how badly the track had degraded.
But wait, 1:20 to go and there were again cars out on track, hoping against hope that there might be some time to be found, as the track had been spared an utter shellacking, and indeed there was, with Leclerc up to P8 and putting Kmag out!!! Big oversight from HAAS to not be on track as Gasly, too, was rocking a personal best in S1. Indeed, of the 4 that were on track, Ocon, Gasly, Hulkenberg and Leclerc, the up and coming Ferrari driver was the only one to improve his time. Good move by the Sauber driver then and off to drown his woes with the others then was Kmag, and perhaps Gunther Steiner as well, as Leclerc joined the Q3 party....
The infinite wait for the opening of the pitlane in changing circumstances always tests the patience of even the best of teams, and the anxiety was writ large across the faces of all the team personnel. Wow, and then, Vettel in front of the stewards for an amazing incident at the weighbridge during Q2. As he rolled into the pitlane to switch onto the Soft tyres, he got called to the weighbridge. First, he knocked over a cone, which took the FIA stewards who cleared it at least 10 seconds to retrieve. Then, as he mounted the scales, according to Jo Bauer, the technical delegate, he failed to turn off the engine which meant it took longer to get a result. Finally, after he rolled back off the scales, he put it in gear and picked up a bit of wheelspin as he headed off, destroying the rear set of scales. The FIA stewards were a bit cross about this...
Leclerc, again was first off, followed by Ericsson, and still not wet enough for the intermediate tyres. They were trailed by pretty much the entire rest of the field, but it was a respectable 1:08.432 for Ericsson as it was Vettel lighting the board purple as the big boys were fully underway. Behind Vettel, Bottas reset the fastest time for S1 as Raikkonen was first to the top. Vettel cracked that time, with a 1:07.301 and only Hamilton was able to outdo him, by a mere 0.073 seconds.
Mercedes led the way for the final go, with Vettel at the back of the pack, Bottas first to go, followed by Verstappen, Hamilton and Ricciardo, who were desperate to space themselves out. Raikkonen was quickest on the second go round and then Vettel went even faster in S1. Hamilton shaved another tenth off across the line and then it was slippery S2, undoing their efforts, dooming Vettel to P2, the gap jumping to 0.093 as T8 was his undoing. As it stood, Bottas and Raikkonen then Verstappen and Ricciardo for the sharp end, then Ericsson, Leclerc, Grosjean and Gasly. Nice exclamation for Ericsson, who is moving onto IndyCar next season, starting P6 once Ricciardo's penalty gets appliedbut with all the hard work to come in the race tomorrow.
With both Vettel and Hamilton under investigation, perhaps Raikkonen or Bottas were in with a shout. With Hamilton's adventure on Sirotkin's outlap, which it's not being a push lap might augur in his favour, should he be found at fault, it would likely be a 3 spot for him. For Vettel, the stakes were decidely higher, if he was found guilty then he could face being disqualified from the qualifying session, starting him at the back of the pack....
The hearing was set for 30 minutes after the end of qualifying, so it'll be a state of uncertainty for this report. Still 100th pole for Mercedes, despite the sloppiness and without rain tomorrow, and assuming that Vettel and Lewis both don't get punted off the front of the grid, it will be a fascinating race of alternate tyre strategies at the sharp end. Similarly, Formula B will see a very fast K-Mag on Soft tyres starting P10 thanks to Ricciardo's penalty, chasing the Super clad quartet ahead of him. But it was Marcus Ericsson who was the real winner, outpointing his star quality teammate and starting on the 3rd row of the grid as the end of his tenure as a Sauber driver unreels.
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