Pole Report: Australian GP

The first Formula 1 Qualifying session is over and the season has launched. The grid is set for Sunday’s first F1 race of the 2014 season. Did I mention the season has started?

What have we learned from the first qualifying session of 2014? That’s hard to pin down because the randomness we thought we might see due to the 2014 regulations were partially masked but the ever-present randomness of a wet circuit. Rain always impacts the results both good and bad depending on where your loyalty lies.

This session saw the Australian crowd rewarded for their loyalty in local hero Daniel Ricciardo who claims P2 on the starting grid for tomorrow’s race. Ricciardo replaces favored son MarkWebber and after his 4-time champion teammate, Sebastian Vettel, failed to make it to Q3, the crowd cheered with joy that could be heard clearly as the new engine sound is much quieter than last year.

This is a big deal as Red Bull struggled heavily during pre-season testing and many were worried that the team would fail in even getting into Q3 let alone finishing a race—which is yet to be determined. Ricciardo’s front-row performance is a resounding slap on the back not only for Australian fans but also to Red Bull management.

Perhaps the more interesting story, for me, was the appearance of both Toro Rosso’s in Q3. A role that last year was traditionally reserved for Ferrari, McLaren, Force India and Sauber. Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Danill Kvyat quietly raced their way to P6 and P8 split only by the superior driving talent of Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.

For Hulkenberg’s part, yet again he shows that he is deserving of so much more as he put the twitchy Force India car in P7 while his teammate, Sergio Perez, languished in P16. I maintain that this is a man who could be taking the championship fight to Vettel, Alonso or anyone else if he was given a decent ride.

We also learned that Williams F1 may have simply been caught out on the timing of setting a good lap on a drying track. Slotted in P9 and P10, both drivers are placed lower than many expected but may have pace and reliability in hand for Sunday and that could see them farther up the grid. It is worth noting that Felipe Massa out-qualified his teammate.

As for Pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton? Well, there probably wasn’t much argument as to if the 2008 champion could claim pole. There may not be much argument as to whether he could be a contender for the world championship either but time will tell and there is a long way to go as well as a fierce teammate in Nico Rosberg who could spoil British fan’s hopes by giving another German the world title.

Rain always clouds the reality of a session but there are some earmarks that we can pull from and Lotus F1’s struggles are certainly one sad story of the weekend so far. Romain Grosjean needs to stop listening to the press lament how he’s been put upon by being stuck in a team with no money and a bad car.

As with all of us, how we react to adversity is more important than the actual adversity itself and Grosjean needs to suck it up, realize his season will be fraught with challenges and also realize that year ago he was near being jettisoned from F1 so roll his sleeves up and set and example for other teams to know why they should hire him for 2015.

During the final Q3 session the track was exactly on the crossover point between the intermediate and wet, with both types of tyre proving to be extremely competitive, as seen by the make-up of the front row. However, this crossover point has become wider this year as the result of Pirelli’s work over last season and the winter to extend the useful range of the wet tyre. Depending on the strategies that each team selects, both tyres could be used tomorrow if it rains.

Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery said:

“Today we finally got to see the relative pace of all the cars but the complicating factor was the rain. This was the first time that the intermediate and wet tyres had run since one brief session of testing in Jerez and from the forecasts it looks like we will be seeing more of them this weekend. We’ll wait to hear the precise feedback from the teams, but from what we can see so far, we’re satisfied with the levels of performance of the intermediates and wets on the 2014 cars. Despite the complexity of these revolutionary new machines, the teams have run reliably and strongly in qualifying. But today’s conditions won’t be representative of the rest of the season, so it’s still hard to draw any firm conclusions because actual race pace will be a defining factor this season. We saw a number of different approaches in Q3, with both intermediates and full wets used by the top 10. In particular, the development work we have completed on the wet tyre and tested on previous generation cars would appear to have transferred improvements through to the 2014 Formula One.”

The Pirelli strategy predictor:

Strategy is going to depend heavily on the weather, with a continued risk of rain tomorrow. If it stays dry, we would expect the following strategy to be quickest for the 58-lap race: start on the soft, change to the soft again on lap 23, change to the medium for the final stint on lap 51.

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