SAKHIR // Mercedes-GP’s Nico Rosberg will start from pole position for only the second time of his career at Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, yet despite the surprise result there was a certain sense of anticlimax in the security-heavy Formula One paddock.
Reports of skirmishes and civil protests in nearby villages float regularly into the locked-down Sakhir International Circuit, which attracts millionaires, socialites and local royalty. Yet for all the talk of problems outside, drama inside the utopian bubble was nowhere to be found.
Barren grandstands lined the track and qualifying failed to live up to expectations. The kingdom’s Crown Prince said he believed more than 15,000 spectators had attended the afternoon’s pre-race showdown. Perhaps they were more interested in the musical delights on offer in the circuit’s entertainment village.
Those who did turn out to show their support saw Rosberg, the German who made his F1 debut here in 2006, clock a fastest lap 0.254 seconds quicker than Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso finished a further 0.083s back to start from third. None of the three drivers set their fastest laps on final runs.
Vettel conceded that “even with the perfect lap, we couldn’t have beaten [Rosberg’s time]” while Alonso decided to abort his final effort mid-lap. Even Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen, a hot pre-race favourite after a run of impressive results in the Arabian Gulf, could not provide a spark, managing only the ninth quickest lap of the afternoon.
The driver on pole in Bahrain has won four of the past eight races here and Rosberg converted his only other pole position, in China last season, into victory. Yet his chances of holding position look limited after Friday’s race simulation showed Mercedes to be suffering high tyre degradation.
“I really want to kick-start my season,” said the 27-year-old Rosberg, who has retired twice this year and finished fourth in Malaysia.
“It’s really been a rough ride in the first three races. It’s difficult to say if we have enough pace to win the race, but for sure we’re going to try and I look forward to starting first.”
Strategy rather than speed is the primary means of success this season and Vettel, the three-time world champion and current standings leader, saved all three sets of Pirelli’s more durable hard tyre. The understanding is the Red Bull driver is hoping to complete the race requiring only three pit stops.
“We managed to save some tyres. It will be all about tyres and tyre degradation, once again,” the 25-year-old Vettel said. “We’ll see what happens, but for sure it’s good to start from the front [row].”
When pressed on his potential strategical plans, Vettel played coy: “To be honest with you, I don’t know how many stops we have to do. You don’t have to be a genius ... one stop is impossible for everybody, two stops is impossible for most and then it’s between three and four stops. We decided to do what we did because we think it’s the best way.”
Alonso aborted his final run for similar reasons, but believes even without saving his tyres he is well placed to fight for a second successive victory after a commanding performance in China last week.
“Normally in qualifying we’re struggling a lot, but the car was very competitive and this puts us in a strong position to start the race with the group of the leaders and fight for the podium with a little bit more margin,” he said.
The Spaniard will be joined on the second row by Felipe Massa, his Ferrari teammate. Massa finished sixth fastest after surprisingly opting to run on the hard tyre, but will start from fourth after grid penalties were given to Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber.
Regulations dictate the Brazilian must now start the race on the hard tyre and while he expects to be slower initially, he hopes to benefit later in the race.
Hamilton, of Mercedes-GP, who finished on pole in Shanghai, and Webber, the Red Bull driver who is taking part in his 200th grand prix, will start in ninth and seventh respectively and are well positioned to move up through the field quickly.
As ever, there is potential for a spectacle.
Whether many will be here to see it remains to be seen, but Bahraini organisers certainly hope for an upsurge in spectators.
Bahrain GP qualifying times
1 Rosberg, Mercedes 1min 32.330s
2 Vettel, Red Bull 1:32.584
3 Alonso, Ferrari 1:32.667
4 Hamilton, Mercedes-x 1:32.667
5 Webber, Red Bull-y 1:33.078
6 Massa, Ferrari 1:33.207
7 Di Resta, Force India 1:33.235
8 Sutil, Force India 1:33.246
9 Raikkonen, Lotus 1:33.327
10 Button, McLaren no time
11 Grosjean, Lotus 1:33.762
12 Perez, McLaren 1:33.914
13 Ricciardo, Toro Rosso 1:33.974
14 Hulkenberg, Sauber 1:33.976
15 Bottas, Williams 1:34.105
16 Vergne, Toro Rosso 1:34.284
17 Maldonado, Williams 1:34.425
18 Gutierrez, Sauber-z 1:34.730
19 Pic, Caterham 1:35.283
20 Bianchi, Marussia 1:36.178
21 Garde, Caterham 1:36.304
22 Chilton, Marussia 1:36.476
x – Will receive a five-place grid penalty; y – Will receive a three-place grid penalty incurred at China GP; z – Will receive a five-place grid penalty
Sebastian Vettel, Germany 52 pts
Kimi Raikkonen, Finland 49
Fernando Alonso, Spain 43
Lewis Hamilton, Great Britain 40
Felipe Massa, Brazil 30
Mark Webber, Australia 26
Nico Rosberg, Germany 12
Jenson Button, Great Britain 12
Romain Grosjean, France 11
Paul di Resta, Great Britain 8
Adrian Sutil, Germany 6
Daniel Ricciardo, Australia 6
Nico Hulkenberg, Germany 5
Sergio Perez, Mexico 2
Jean-Eric Vergne, France 1
Charles Pic, France 0
Max Chilton, Great Britain 0
Giedo van der Garde, Holland 0
Jules Bianchi, France 0
Esteban Gutierrez, Mexico 0
Pastor Maldonado, Venezuela 0
Valtteri Bottas, Finland 0
Red Bull Racing 78 pts
Force India-Mercedes 14
Toro Rosso-Ferrari 7
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