|After Saturday qualifying, and as the two Ferrari drivers walk away, the ever cocky Lewis Hamilton winks as if to say 'I've got this race in the bag'|
The front row of the grid for tomorrow's penultimate round of the Formula 1 World Championship is a carbon copy of last Sunday's race in Fuji. Lewis Hamilton beat back the challenge of his two chief world championship challengers by grabbing pole position for the Chinese Grand Prix with a 1m36.303 lap. Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen will join Hamilton on the front row, while his teammate Felipe Massa, who is 2nd in points, will start 3rd.
McLaren driver Hamilton had a poor first flying lap in Q3, but then beat Raikkonen's Ferrari to pole by 0.342 seconds. It was his second successive pole and his seventh of the season.
"I got a bit out of shape during my first run in Q3; I ran a bit wide at Turn Eight and oversteered onto the marbles, which put me on the wrong line for Turn Nine and left me cleaning my tires for the rest of the lap," said Hamilton.
"But I pulled it all together for my final attempt - and it was as close as I could get to a perfect lap. Our whole weekend has gone well, I can really feel the support from the team and my family and we’ll give it our best shot in the race tomorrow."
Massa was ahead of Hamilton after the first Q3 runs but didn't make such a large improvement and will start third, half a second slower than the McLaren on pole. Whereas last race he was 5th on the grid, this time he will line up behind the Englishman who leads him by five points in the Drivers' classification. With the winner of the last two races, Fernando Alonso, alongside the Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro driver, the scene is set for a thrilling 56 lap contest which starts at the later time of 3 pm local time.
The third row of the grid is currently made up of the second McLaren-Mercedes of Heikki Kovalainen and Nick Heidfeld, sixth in the BMW. The German actually qualified seventh behind the Red Bull-Renault of Mark Webber, but the Australian will drop ten places on the grid as he had to change an engine after the morning free practice.
The situation is further complicated as Heidfeld is currently under investigation for allegedly blocking another competitor during Q1. If he was to also be given a penalty, then sixth spot would go to the Toro Rosso-Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. [See Update added below.]
Last week the weather forecast for this weekend was dry on all three days. However, in recent days the chances of rain predicted for Sunday have increased, so anything is possible.
No one who was here last year could fail to remember the Typhoon that hit the track on Sunday night after the race, lasting into the following day. Hopefully, this won't be the case during the race itself, because, as we have seen in other races this season, a combination of bad weather, incidents and safety car appearances can turn a Grand Prix into a Grand Lottery.
Update: Nick Heidfeld has been hit with a three-place grid penalty after impeding David Coulthard. The BMW Sauber driver was punished after race stewards declared the German had stopped Coulthard from recording a flying lap in Q1. Heidfeld had qualified in sixth for Sunday's race but the decision, which came after an hour of deliberations, has seen him demoted to ninth on the grid.
Lewis Hamilton has been the standout McLaren or Ferrari driver all weekend in China, and the championship leader duly dominated qualifying for this potentially decisive round. However, Heikki Kovalainen looks unlikely to play a role in the outcome from fifth on the grid. "It will be a very important day and all the team wants to make the best out of it," said Mercedes' Norbert Haug.
Felipe Massa's face told the story better than any words could; he was bitterly disappointed to qualify third, but at least his championship-assistant teammate Kimi Raikkonen shares the front of the grid with Hamilton. "A very tough qualifying, up against a very strong rival," said engineer Luca Baldisserri.
Despite an uncompetitive morning session, Fernando Alonso's P4 on the grid proves he is now an ever-present force in the upper part of the field. Nelson Piquet missed a spot in Q3 by 7 thousandths of a second.
Mark Webber's P6 looks strong, but he must move ten places down following his spectacular morning engine failure. "Let's hope for some rain tomorrow," said the Australian, amid forecasts of possible showers. David Coulthard, who failed to move out of the initial Q1 segment, was furious with BMW's Nick Heidfeld, who was penalized for holding up the Scot. "It was very un-sportsman like behavior," he fumed.
Heidfeld, fastest of all in morning practice, moved through all qualifying segments and booked a solid 7th place on the grid, but he must move back three places after stewards deemed he blocked Coulthard at the end of Q1. Factoring in Webber's penalty, he will start the race P9. The German told reporters: "In the last sector, when I supposedly blocked him, he was faster than his previously fastest lap. So I don't understand," said Heidfeld. Robert Kubica's slim title chances took a hit, when after a weekend of struggling with car balance, he lines up just P11 on the grid.
Sebastian Vettel's weekend was not impressive until qualifying, when he moved past his teammate to qualify P8, becoming P7 after Webber's penalty. "It was impressive," veteran engineer Giorgio Ascanelli admitted. Sebastien Bourdais was the slowest qualifier in the decisive Q3 segment. "I had no option tires left, but I am very happy with this result," said the Frenchman.
Jarno Trulli made the Q3 cut and will start the race from P8, while Timo Glock qualified thirteenth but also benefits from Webber's penalty. "It's been hard to get the setup right all weekend," said Glock.
Jenson Button in qualifying was faster only than the slow Force Indias, but Rubens Barrichello made it out of 'Q1' and was even quicker in Q2 than Williams' Nico Rosberg. "I don't think we would have been able to produce anything more than that," said a pleased Barrichello, who is fighting for his future in F1.
A very bad showing by the British team, with Kazuki Nakajima dropping out in Q1 and Rosberg the slowest of the fifteen Q2 competitors.
Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella were separated by just 9 thousandths of a second in Q1. Unfortunately, their deficit to the next best competitor was a less impressive 7 tenths. "Our race pace is always better when we get the tires to run during the longer runs," said technical boss Mike Gascoyne.
* Webber will drop 10 positions due to unscheduled engine change.
** Heidfeld given 3 place penalty and will drop to P9.