F1: Round 3 – Shanghai, China – Qualifying

Showing that the form book is well and truly out the window this season, and that even trying to predict the running order from race-to-race is all but impossible, the Shanghai qualifying turned out to be all about … Red Bull.

From the start they were strong and seemed the team to beat, always looking like they had something in reserve. The Brawns of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello battled away but RBR’s Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel always seemed to have that little more at key moments.

It’s quite amazing considering that both Red Bull cars had drive shaft problems just two hours earlier in morning practice. And It’s especially amazing that Vettel should eventually clinch pole when he only made one run in each of Q1, Q2 and Q3 leaving it to the last minute in all cases – and yet still pulling out a thumping time in each session that more than did the business. He admitted his car had problems during qualifying, which meant he tried to run as little as possible.

“It was always last minute: I had only one run in Q1 on the hard tyre and one run on Q2 with softs, and one with Q3 – as you see you don’t need more,” said Vettel. “It was not easy. We had a problem wit the car so we tried to run as little as possible. The car is quick, as you can see. I had no concerns, but with only one lap if you run wide or make a mistake it means the end.

“I am very, very happy. Unbelievable we made it to pole position in the end. This morning was not ideal, but it seems the less I run in free practice the better in qualifying.”

Red Bull’s hopes of a front row lock-out were foiled by the out-of-the-blue stunning lap by Fernando Alonso to put his Renault in the 2nd spot. It can only be assumed that Alonso is running very light, but it certainly did the trick.

By contrast, Alonso’s team mate Nelson Piquet went out in the first session. He was in good company, though, given that BMW’s Robert Kubica had a horrible qualifying session and ended up a spot behind him in 17th. He’s tried – and rejected – the KERS system the previous day, but neither option seemed to be able to help him get any pace here, a circuit he performed strongly at last year.

The second qualifying period claimed some more serious big names: Nick Heidfeld followed his team mate out, but the BMW came close in 11th; but Heikki Kovalainen, Felipe Massa and Timo Glock – a particular surprise as many had been tipping the Toyotas to top qualifying. Given that he ended up 14th, the gear box penalty he received after practice will put him down to the last row of the grid.

Lewis Hamilton managed to make it in to Q3 and finished 9th – his best starting position of the year thus far – with the aid of a new front wing and other improvements shipped out by the team from the UK over the week. When asked if this was the beginning of a resurgence, Hamilton replied: “definitely”.

“This was the goal of the team – to bit by bit make the step forward,” he said. “It’s great to be back in Q3. I just have thanks to say to the guys back home, they’re doing a fantastic job, keep churning away, and bit by bit we’re catching these guys.”

Sebastien Buemi showed that Red Bull’s strong form here applied to the junior team as well, making it through to Q3 for the first time. However, his team mate Sebastian Bourdais exited in Q1 complaining about the car’s performance – as usual. Funny how his team mates seem to make it work, but he can’t.

Qualifying times

Pos  Driver       Team                     Q1        Q2        Q3      Laps
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault       1:36.565  1:35.130  1:36.184  11
 2.  Alonso       Renault                1:36.443  1:35.803  1:36.381  21
 3.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault       1:35.751  1:35.173  1:36.466  19
 4.  Barrichello  Brawn-Mercedes         1:35.701  1:35.503  1:36.493  21
 5.  Button       Brawn-Mercedes         1:35.533  1:35.556  1:36.532  19
 6.  Trulli       Toyota                 1:36.308  1:35.645  1:36.835  21
 7.  Rosberg      Williams-Toyota        1:35.941  1:35.809  1:37.397  23
 8.  Raikkonen    Ferrari                1:36.137  1:35.856  1:38.089  19
 9.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       1:35.776  1:35.740  1:38.595  17
10.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1:36.284  1:35.965  1:39.321  21
11.  Heidfeld     BMW-Sauber             1:36.525  1:35.975            14
12.  Kovalainen   McLaren-Mercedes       1:36.646  1:36.032            10
13.  Massa        Ferrari                1:36.178  1:36.033            11
14.  Glock        Toyota                 1:36.364  1:36.066            14
15.  Nakajima     Williams-Toyota        1:36.673  1:36.193            13
16.  Bourdais     Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1:36.906                      10
17.  Piquet       Renault                1:36.908                      10
18.  Kubica       BMW-Sauber             1:36.966                      8 
19.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes   1:37.669                      10
20.  Fisichella   Force India-Mercedes   1:37.672                      10
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