F1 Malaysian GP Qualifying thoughts
I watched a recording of the Malaysian Gran Prix qualifying earlier - I didn't get up early to watch it live (6:30am here in the UK) because, well... it's only Malaysia - nothing much interesting happens there. By the looks if it I was wrong though - it actually turned out to be one of the most interesting qualy sessions in a while, particularly with the final ten shootout living up to it's name for the first time as far as I remember.
I've written loads before criticising the current F1 qualifying format and the final segment of it in particular. They tweaked it part way through it's first season (2006) and reduced that final segment down to 15 mins so that even though drivers would still drive a number of laps to burn off fuel, they didn't spend quite so much time doing that. Still, it's a both a waste of resources (fuel, tyres, wear on the cars) and the viewer's time to watch cars circling the track as slowly as they dare in order to game the rules on race fuel starts for the top 10.
In Malaysia though the teams apparently feared rain in both the Q2 and Q3 segments. In Q2 we normally see the top teams come out only at the end and just do one flying lap, but in Malaysia most of them came out and did a flying lap on a brand new set of 'option' tyres right at the start of the segment. Those that were in danger had to come out again and do another flying lap on another new set of the softer 'option' tyres in order to guarantee themselves a place in the top 10 (which is why they don't normally go out at the start at all).
No rain appeared in Q2 but apparently the teams still feared it in Q3 so many drivers came out on their relatively high fuel loads (remember they have to chose a fuel load before the start of Q3 that lasts them for all the rest of qualifying and the first leg of the race itself) and used a set of option tyres to set a time before reverting to the usual slow-lapping routine.
Massa set the best time at the start of Q3. After teams had spent as much time as they dared burning off fuel, the four contenders proceeded to have a go at getting pole. Alonso was first to set a good time. Raikkonen couldn't top it. Some of the shine rubbed off Lewis Hamilton as he failed to even bear Massa's time from the start of the segment. Right at the end Massa came round and as many predicted he would, took pole. So at the front it is 1. Massa, 2. Alonso, 3. Raikkonen, 4. Hamilton.
Behind the contenders we have first the pretenders and then the no-hopers. The pretenders are led by BMW. I don't mean any disrespect to BMW's efforts by calling them pretender, but I don't see them as championship challengers and they probably won't even win a race this season. But they look likely to fulfill my pre-season prediction and become the 'best of the rest' team and finish 3rd in the constructors behind McLaren and Ferrari. If we're talking real pretenders then we have to look at Nico Rosberg in 6th for Williams-Toyota. He must be low on fuel in my opinion. What's more interesting is that 8th and 9th positions on the grid are taken by the two works Toyotas. All the teams run low fuel in Q2 to try and get into Q3 so you can't say Toyota did anything deceptive to get 8th and 9th. Those positions may not satisfy the Toyota board for the hundreds of millions they've put into F1 so far, but they're a damn sight better than I'd expected them to be in the second race of the season.
When you look for disappointments you don't have to look much further than Renault in 11th and 12th position, sandwiched by the two Red Bull cars (powered remember by Renault engines this season). Then you have the works Honda of Button in 15th behind the Super-Aguri of Takuma Sato and the works Honda of Rubens Barrichello 19th, one place behind the Super-Aguri of Anthony Davidson. Again, all those times were set on low fuel and should be representitive of the car's true pace.
This qualifying session also featured some new on-screen graphics that we will hopefully see in the race. I'll talk about them some more in another post, but it seems like there are some reasons to be cheerful about Formula 1 in 2007 - as long as you don't work for Honda or Renault.