Sebastian Vettel kicked off his 2010 campaign with a fine pole position for Red Bull Racing, holding off a strong challenge from the Scuderia at the Bahrain International Circuit.
The German needed just one single run at the end of qualifying three to displace the Ferrari of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso at the front of the expanded 24-car field. His time around the extended Bahrain track was one minute, 54.101 seconds, earning his sixth career pole.
As for the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, making his Grand Prix comeback after three years away from the sport, the Mercedes driver could only manage seventh – one position ahead of the current world champion Jenson Button in the McLaren.
Fernando Alonso had held provisional pole early in Q3, as Ferrari opted to go for two qualifying runs in the final part of the session. But Vettel’s impressive lap time in his ‘Luscious Liz’ was 0.9 seconds quicker than the Spaniard’s initial best, and proved unbeatable as the others recorded their best time.
The Ferrari pair improved on their second attempt with Massa edging out his new team-mate by a margin of 0.366 seconds but it wasn’t enough to displace Vettel in the Red Bull RB6.
As for Lewis Hamilton, his first Q3 lap was a shock. He was nearly two seconds off the pace compared to the Ferraris and yet he was still a second down to Sebastian after improving to take fourth spot. Much focus has been on that controversial and yet clever snorkel/rear wing aero device fitted on the MP4-25, but the raw pace is somewhat lacking when compared to the Red Bull and Ferrari.
Even though all attention is on Michael Schumacher, Mercedes GP team-mate Nico Rosberg is setting the better lap times in the other Silver Arrows. In fact, the young German has been consistently out-performing his more experienced colleague in all the sessions leading up to qualifying (as much as 0.5 seconds). The end result means Rosberg in P5 with M. Schumacher in seventh behind Mark Webber’s Red Bull.
What about the current world champion? Well, the new McLaren driver had a scare in Q2 when his first attempt was only the eleventh quickest time (not good enough to make into the top-ten shootout). Jenson improved slightly on his second run and just squeezed in – edging out his old Brawn GP colleague Rubens Barrichello – which eventually became eighth in Q3. Although Rubens will have the last laugh, as the Williams driver will start the Bahrain race with a fresh set of Bridgestone compared to Jenson’s used tyres.
Barrichello takes eleventh, with Force India’s Tonio Liuzzi between the Brazilian and Williams team-mate Nico Hulkenberg – who was the highest qualifying rookie as Renault’s Vitaly Petrov took P17 behind the Saubers (Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi) and Sebastien Buemi in the Toro Rosso.
As for the new teams, it was unlikely to see Lotus, Virgin Racing and Hispania making pass Q1 due to a lack of preparation.
In the defence of Virgin Racing, Timo Glock did a solid job in taking P19, just one place behind the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari. The Lotus of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen took P20 and P21 respectively with newcomer Lucas di Grassi in P22 for Virgin.
As for the HRT team, Indian driver Karun Chandhon treated the qualifying session as a shakedown test due to hydraulic problems with the new car. With limited mileage, it was not a surprise to see Chandhon running ten seconds off the pace but at least he completed seven laps and was within 1.7 seconds to team-mate Bruno Senna, who had the extra time to drive the car during Friday’s practice sessions. The race will be a different matter as reliability will be a key issue.
Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix is going to be fascinating. Can Vettel translate this pole position into race victory? The race pace seems good though there might be an issue with tyre wear. As for the Ferraris, their performance has been excellent, lapping consistently and the F10 is handling well. Will we see Massa taking the chequered flag or a dream victory for Alonso? What about the Mercedes-powered cars? Can Rosberg and Hamilton spring a surprise? All this plus no refuelling will make the opening race of the 2010 Formula One season that bit more special.
Qualifying results, Bahrain:
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:54.101
2. Massa Ferrari 1:54.242
3. Alonso Ferrari 1:54.608
4. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.217
5. Rosberg Mercedes 1:55.241
6. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:55.284
7. Schumacher Mercedes 1:55.524
8. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.672
9. Kubica Renault 1:55.885
10. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:56.309
11. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:55.330
12. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:55.653
13. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:55.857
14. de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.237
15. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:56.265
16. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.270
17. Petrov Renault 1:56.619
18. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:57.071
19. Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.728
20. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:59.852
21. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 2:00.313
22. di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 2:00.587
23. Senna HRT-Cosworth 2:03.240
24. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 2:04.904