F1: Round 4: Sakhir, Bahrain – Qualifying

And so the balance of power on the F1 starting grid shifts again. Where the first two races were owned by Brawn, and China saw Red Bull take over, this weekend we have seen the rise of Toyota to front row dominance.

Toyota had been growing in pace and confidence throughout the practice sessions and looked the team to beat going into qualifying (once Timo Glock’s electrical problems from this morning’s run were sorted out.) That superiority was evident from the start of qualifying too, but in Q1 and Q2 they found themselves frustrated by the current brightest star in the F1 firmament, Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull, who kept stealing the top spot.

When it came to Q3 it seems that Toyota took no chances, and possibly both Toyotas have been fuelled light in order to ensure that their form translated into a front row lock-out, with qualifying flying lap specialist Jarno Trulli leading the way over team mate Glock. Vettel was pushed back to 3rd place, still hugely impressive especially given that his more experienced team mate Mark Webber was eliminated in Q1 after his final lap as ruined by an atrocious blocking move by Adrian Sutil that will surely earn the Force India driver a penalty before the start of the race.

Brawn GP followed up in 4th (Jenson Button) and 6th (Rubens Barrichello) , but Button was blunt in admitting that the Brawns just didn’t seem to be enjoying the sort of single-lap pace here that they had benefited from so far this season. “We’ve struggled compared to the whole field and we don’t have the pace we had in the first few races,” Button said afterwards. “It’s going to be a tough race tomorrow – it’s not a walk in the park.” But Jenson felt their race pace with fuel was much better: “Our pace is good over long runs, but our one lap pace is not competitive.” Was the rest of the field already catching up with them, or is it just something about Bahrain? Toyota do benefit from having done a lot of testing at Bahrain over the winter, for example, during the time that Brawn GP were mothballed and wondering whether they would even make the 2009 season.

Splitting the Brawns was Lewis Hamilton, in the strongest qualifying showing yet for McLaren. But Heikki Kovalainen was not quite so on the pace, 11th in both Q1 and Q2 before being eliminated ahead of the final session. Ferrari also looked very pacy here and for the first time got both cars through to Q3., but then both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen slumped to 8th and 10th respectively and just seemed sluggish.

Had Ferrari filled up for a very long first stint? It’s possible, although they risk being sitting ducks in the early part of the race. Much of everyone’s race strategy comes down to tyre choice, with the supersoft option tyres said to be particularly troublesome in the heat of Bahrain and not lasting at all well, suggesting that all the teams are going to have to three-stop and have a particularly short stint for the option tyres. Toyota may be planning to get the short stint in early and use the supersofts to get the best getaway from the grid, while others may be looking to slip the supersofts in toward the end of the day when the running order is settled. Only time will tell which team has got the balance right.

Further back, other than Webber’s elimination in Q1, the surprises were to see Chinese GP star Sebastien Buemi get knocked out in the same session meaning that three of the Red Bull/Toro Rosso stable of cars fell at the first hurdle. Buemi blamed driver errors, saying “It should have been much better and I ought to have comfortably got through to Q2, but I made a mistake in the third sector.” His team mate Sebastien Bourdais blames a lack of track time due to technical problems for his own very poor showing.

It was also startling to see the both of the BMWs look so poor in Q2, completely unable to get anywhere near the cut-off time to get into the final session.Less surprising was Nelson Piquet’s elimination in Q2 after squandering his last attempt at a flying lap by straying off-track in what might be his last chance to keep his race seat. Renault’s reserve driver Romain Grosjean was conspicuously picked up by the TV cameras as he watched proceedings from the pit wall: the vultures are circling for poor Nelsinho.

Pos Driver       Team                   Q1        Q2        Q3
 1. Trulli       Toyota                 1:32.779  1:32.671  1:33.431
 2. Glock        Toyota                 1:33.165  1:32.613  1:33.712
 3. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault       1:32.680  1:32.474  1:34.015
 4. Button       Brawn-Mercedes         1:32.978  1:32.842  1:34.044
 5. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       1:32.851  1:32.877  1:34.196
 6. Barrichello  Brawn-Mercedes         1:33.116  1:32.842  1:34.239
 7. Alonso       Renault                1:33.627  1:32.860  1:34.578
 8. Massa        Ferrari                1:33.297  1:33.014  1:34.818
 9. Rosberg      Williams-Toyota        1:33.672  1:33.166  1:35.134
10. Raikkonen    Ferrari                1:33.117  1:32.827  1:35.380
11. Kovalainen   McLaren-Mercedes       1:33.479  1:33.242
12. Nakajima     Williams-Toyota        1:33.221  1:33.348
13. Kubica       BMW-Sauber             1:33.495  1:33.487
14. Heidfeld     BMW-Sauber             1:33.377  1:33.562
15. Piquet       Renault                1:33.608  1:33.941
16. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes   1:33.722
17. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1:33.753
18. Fisichella   Force India-Mercedes   1:33.910
19. Webber       Red Bull-Renault       1:34.038
20. Bourdais     Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1:34.159
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