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Fernando & Jenson share spoils on disjointed day

AS IN Barcelona two weeks ago, it was Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button who shared the spoils of ending up fastest in the first two practice sessions for a Grand Prix.  Alonso set the pace for Ferrari by nearly half a second in FP1 and Button managed to squeeze in a run on the super soft tyre in the afternoon session on a disjointed opening day of the Monaco Grand Prix meeting.  Sunday’s race is likely to be decided by qualifying positions and once again, durability of the Pirelli tyre compound and little was given away today.

This is because all the teams were affected by the lack of dry running.  Persistent rain showers in the second practice session meant Monaco looked more like Britain did in April.  The weather gods seem to have given us in the UK the traditional weather at the moment reserved for Monte Carlo in late May!  Despite the lack of dry running, Lewis Hamilton has an inklin of who will be setting the frontrunning pace at the weekend.  He told formula1.com; “I think today we got a bit of an understanding of how quick people are.  The Lotus looks pretty quick and I am not quite sure what Red Bull is up to.  Ferrari looks fast and so do we.  So first you have the usual suspects, but we have seen before that it would be dead wrong to underestimate all others.”

Hamilton was impressed by Lotus and it looked like the Enstone team have the most consistent and best handling car so far around the Princiapality.  Romain Grosjean put in a string of fastest laps together in the first practice session and ended an impressive second in both sessions.  Grosjean has a good record from his GP2 days and has to be considered as a contender, providing he keeps it clean for the rest of the weekend.  He said afterwards to BBC Sport; “I like Monaco.  I like the track; it’s good fun.  The car is going well at the moment and let’s see what we can do later on.  It is important to have a car you are confident with.”  Team-mate Kimi Raikkonen had a very frustrating day, failing to set a time in the first session after the team made a steering rack adjustment in the pits that didn’t go to plan.  With just an installation lap under his belt, the rain wrecked Raikkonen’s hopes in FP2 and he is now playing catch-up going into Saturday’s sessions.

The Ferrari looks mighty and had much better aerodynamic and mechanical grip, which was a clear weakness in the early season races.  Alonso is a double winner around here and can’t be counted out at whatever cost.  He set the pace in the first session, which was held under bright blue skies.  Under fire Felipe Massa had a much better day today, finishing sixth and third in the two sessions.  His car seemed to still be a handful and a little kiss with the wall in FP1 at Tabac allowed race engineer Rob Smedley to produce another of his great soundbites on the team radio; “A kiss is needed in Monaco, you need to do a nice kiss!”  

There was only 20 minutes of dry running in FP2 and Button had the time to see how the super soft tyre would work.  Trailing by 16 points in the championship, Jenson will be keen to make up for a difficult time in both Bahrain and Spain and his afternoon time of 1.15.746 was the fastest of the day.  Only the Sauber drivers and Pastor Maldonado managed time on the super soft tyre before the heavens opened in the afternoon and none of those three looked to have the pace Button did on a single lap.

World champions Red Bull continue to be a mystery as neither Sebastian Vettel or Mark Webber looked like challenging the top times.  Seventh for Webber in FP2 was their best effort today and if the Milton Keynes team isn’t lucky, they could be looking at another mediocre weekend.

Kovalainen gets out of his blown up Caterham engine in FP1 (Planet F1)

As ever, Monaco caught many drivers out with Mirabeau being a real handful in the damp conditions.  Massa, Sergio Perez and both Williams drivers were caught out, although none hit the barriers.  The Nouvelle chicane saw many cars cut part of it off as they tested the braking limits of their cars; Narain Karthikeyan being a notable offender for HRT.  The first session was also brought to an unscheduled early end when Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham Renault engine blew up spectacularly in the tunnel, dumping contents of oil and coming to a halt on the tunnel exit.

It was a day where little could be judged on prestigious pace and only in FP3 should it remain dry can we begin to see who are the genuine contenders for pole position in qualifying.

2012 MONACO GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE ONE CLASSIFICATION

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 22 1.16.265
2 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 17 1.16.630
3 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 19 1.16.711
4 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 12 1.16.747
5 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 20 1.16.760
6 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 19 1.16.843
7 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 21 1.17.038
8 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 13 1.17.190
9 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 14 1.17.222
10 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 18 1.17.261
11 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 14 1.17.413
12 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 18 1.17.631
13 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 14 1.18.106
14 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 25 1.18.209
15 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 28 1.18.252
16 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 16 1.18.302
17 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 20 1.18.617
18 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 20 1.19.039
19 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 16 1.19.341
20 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 26 1.20.838
21 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 18 1.20.895
22 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 9 1.21.638
23 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 15 1.22.423
24 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 1 NO TIME

2012 MONACO GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE TWO CLASSIFICATION

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 17 1.15.746
2 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 19 1.16.138
3 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 21 1.16.602
4 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 23 1.16.661
5 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 20 1.16.820
6 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 15 1.17.021
7 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 23 1.17.148
8 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 22 1.17.153
9 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 11 1.17.293
10 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 21 1.17.303
11 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 19 1.17.375
12 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 21 1.17.395
13 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 18 1.17.655
14 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 25 1.17.800
15 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 24 1.18.251
16 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 25 1.18.440
17 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 22 1.18.522
18 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 26 1.18.808
19 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 25 1.19.267
20 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 29 1.19.309
21 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 13 1.20.029
22 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 21 1.20.240
23 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 12 1.20.631
24 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 10 1.20.866
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Vettel back on pole in the desert

Sebastian Vettel is back on pole position and the German's finger salute returns too! (Scotcars)

THE familiar German middle finger was shown in the Sakhir paddock yesterday as Sebastian Vettel returned to his customary spot of starting on pole position.  It is the world champion’s first pole since the season finale in Brazil last November.  Team-mate Mark Webber will start today’s race from third, confirming that Red Bull Racing’s qualifying pace is back.  It was a tense scrap for pole position in what has to be said is a tense backdrop to the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Whilst the TV stations worldwide and UK newspapers lead with the trouble in the country and led to the death of another protester during demonstrations on Friday night, this is a qualifying report and shall remain that.  The action on the track did cause a few unexpected surprises.

The difference in time between the prime and option tyres in Bahrain led to the demise of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes in Q1.  Schumacher had been amongst the top five in every practice session leading into qualifying, but by not chancing it on the option tyre, the German was knocked out by Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham Renault.  Later, it was revealed that an issue with the DRS meant the seven times world champion couldn’t get the lap time he wanted.  To compound Schumacher’s nightmare, a gearbox change overnight means he will start 22nd.  It will be interesting to see his progress today.  Jean-Eric Vergne also missed the cut and then ignored a pitlane red light which ordered the rookie to stop at the weighbridge.  This was an excludable offense 20 years ago but amazingly, no action was taken against the Frenchman!

In Q2, a KERS problem left Pastor Maldonado high and dry in the pits and like Schumacher, the Veneuzelan has been hit with a five place grid penalty for changing his gearbox.  Felipe Massa made his expected exit and the former double winner in Sakhir will start from a distant 14th.  Kimi Raikkonen was squeezed out as the track temperature dropped and the track continued to evolve.  The Lotus driver will start 11th and revealed afterwards that he only had himself to blame for his shock exit.

Paul di Resta made the final part of qualifying for the first time this season and will start tenth.  Considering that Force India missed FP2 due to safety concerns following the events of this weekend, this is a notable achievement.  With no option tyres left, Fernando Alonso decided to save his remaining sets for raceday and seemed content with ninth, setting no time like di Resta in Q3.  The star of qualifying was the young Australian for Toro Rosso, Daniel Ricciardo.  The Italian team has never scored a championship point around this circuit but they have a great chance today after Ricciardo charged to sixth place on the grid.  It is his best ever qualifying performance and he showed his delight to Sky Sports F1 afterwards.  “We had a pretty good morning and we thought all going well, we might have a crack at Q3 today.  Each little step seemed to be very beneficial and I’m really happy, I’ll enjoy this today.”

Nico Rosberg couldn’t repeat his Shanghai heroics and he had to settle for fifth place, making a tiny error in the final corner on his best lap.  This meant that the Red Bull and McLaren teams disputed the pole battle.  After the first runs, Lewis Hamilton looked to have his third pole position of the season.  However, Vettel and Red Bull had saved a set of option tyres from Q2 and he used them to perfection.  His time was left than a 0.1secs quicker than Hamilton, but enough for his second Bahrain Grand Prix pole position.  Webber has his best ever grid position here, which was previously fifth for Williams back in 2005 whilst Jenson Button aborted his final attempt and seemed satisfied with P4 on the grid.  Relief more than delight was echoed on Vettel’s face after his return to the front of the field.  Speaking to BBC Sport, he said: “We didn’t have the best Q1 or Q2 and I made a couple of mistakes.  I knew though in Q3 we could make another step and the first run I was happy with, although it wasn’t perfect.  I knew I had more to give on the new set and I was pleased.  I owe this one to the boys in the garage for their hard work.”

With Red Bull back at the front after qualifying, this season continues to have many twists and turns.  The race begins in just under an hour’s time and it is highly conceivable that we could have four different winners in the first four events for the first time since 2003.

2012 GULF AIR BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX QUALIFYING RESULT

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 18 1.32.422
2 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 13 1.32.520
3 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 17 1.32.637
4 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 12 1.32.711
5 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 10 1.32.821
6 DANIEL RICCIARDO TORO ROSSO FERRARI 17 1.32.912
7 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 13 1.33.008
8 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 17 1.33.394
9 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 11 NO TIME in Q3
10 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 15 NO TIME in Q3
11 (Q2) KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 6 1.33.789
12 (Q2) KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 13 1.33.806
13 (Q2) NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 12 1.33.807
14 (Q2) FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 14 1.33.912
15 (Q2) BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 14 1.34.017
16 (Q2) HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 10 1.36.312
17 (Q1) JEAN-ERIC VERGNE TORO ROSSO FERRARI 8 1.35.014
18 (Q1) VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 7 1.35.823
19 (Q1) CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 8 1.37.683
20 (Q1) PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 6 1.37.883
21 (Q2) PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 8 NO TIME IN Q2
22 (Q1) MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 5 1.34.865
23 (Q1) TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 7 1.37.905
24 (Q1) NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 7 1.38.314

PASTOR MALDONADO RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR GEARBOX CHANGE    

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR GEARBOX CHANGE

Two in a row for Lewis in sweltering Sepang

BRITAIN’s fantastic start to this season’s Formula One world championship continued in Malaysia today, as for the second successive Saturday, two British drivers take the front row of the grid.  As in Melbourne last week, Lewis Hamilton took his second pole position in a row by a small margin from Jenson Button.  Michael Schumacher achieved his best ever position of his second comeback, lining up third for Mercedes GP.  The race tomorrow is set for an interesting battle involving looking after tyres in sweltering track and air temperatures.

The first qualifying session saw Jean-Eric Vergne ending up as the surprise casualty from the midfield, despite some threatening pace from Toro Rosso on Friday.  Heikki Kovalainen will start last on the grid, following his penalty that he picked up in the race in Albert Park for overtaking cars behind the Safety Car.  The Finn revealed to Sky Sports F1; “To be honest, the balance of the car wasn’t as good on the soft tyres as it was on the harder tyres.  I don’t know why and whether it is the same for everybody.  Even with my penalty, I reckon I will be up to my normal position quite quickly.”  Kovalainen will begin behind both HRT’s, who both escaped the 107 per cent ruling and will start the event tomorrow.

In Q2, Felipe Massa failed to make the top ten, although he was a more slender 0.3secs behind Fernando Alonso.  Although Alonso made it into the pole position shootout, eigth and 12th on the grid highlights Ferrari’s fundamental issues.  Urgent development is required on the car before the next event in China which is on the 15 April.  Also dropping out was Pastor Maldonado who created some headaches in the Williams garage by an early excursion into the gravel at turn 11, damaging barge board components.

The remains of Lotus hospitality unit after a fridge fire last night (Crash.net)

In the final session, Lotus backed up their solid pace shown throughout the weekend so far.  Despite a major fire in the hospitality suite they were staying in last night, which lost them millions of pounds in equipment, the team bounced back with Romain Grosjean impressing to sixth.  Kimi Raikkonen actually set the fastest time in Q2 and ended up in fifth on the timecharts.  However, he will start tenth following an overnight gearbox change.  Red Bull opted for split strategies on their two cars.  Unhappy with the balance on the option tyre, Sebastian Vettel elected to stick on the prime tyre.  Fifth place was a good save although the world champion did look deflated in the media pen afterwards.  Mark Webber stuck with the traditional route and came fourth quickest, lapping fastest in Q1 and proving that the team does have some one lap pace.

As expected, McLaren and Mercedes GP set the majority of the running.  A couple of basic errors on his one lap in Q3 left Nico Rosberg languishing back in seventh place.  Schumacher was an amazing third fastest, lapping consistently throughout qualifying.  The previous Achilles heel of his comeback seems to be put to bed.  Hamilton’s great lap in the opening stages of the session was good enough, despite two attempts from Button that ultimately left him just 0.149secs behind his team-mate.

Tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix promises to be a real stormer of a race.

2012 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX QUALIFYING SESSION

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 14 1.36.219
2 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 14 1.36.368
3 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 14 1.36.391
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 19 1.36.461
5 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 14 1.36.634
6 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 14 1.36.658
7 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 14 1.36.664
8 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 16 1.37.566
9 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 17 1.37.698
10 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 13 1.36.461
11 (Q2) PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 14 1.37.589
12 (Q2) FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 15 1.37.731
13 (Q2) BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 13 1.37.841
14 (Q2) PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 15 1.37.877
15 (Q2) DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 14 1.37.883
16 (Q2) NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 13 1.37.890
17 (Q2) KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 12 1.38.069
18 (Q1) JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 7 1.39.077
19 (Q1) VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 6 1.39.567
20 (Q1) TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 8 1.40.903
21 (Q1) CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 8 1.41.250
22 (Q1) PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 4 1.42.914
23 (Q1) NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 6 1.43.655
24 (Q1) HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 9 1.39.306

KIMI RAIKKONEN RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR GEARBOX CHANGE

HEIKKI KOVALAINEN RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR SAFETY CAR INFRINGEMENT IN AUSTRALIA

2012 Team Preview: Caterham

MOVING INTO THE MIDFIELD

WHILST fellow former deubtants, HRT and Marussia have had a very difficult pre-season, Caterham looked well-equipped to break into the midfield in their third season in the sport.  Team principal and Malaysian owner of Queens Park Rangers, Tony Fernandes has complete belief in making this operation work and despite more reliability glitches than most in winter testing, there were signs of good pace, especially on a single lap.

The team, put together under the Lotus name made its debut in Bahrain 2010.  Currently, Heikki Kovalainen has made it into Q2 on six separate occasions, which considering the might they were up against is a notable achievement.  The best finish for the team is 12th at the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix, again achieved by Kovalainen.  Having been the best of the new teams in the last two seasons, Lotus finished tenth in the constructors championship so consequently qualify for bigger prize money for their achievements so far.  This season, the team has been renamed Caterham, after a very messy legal battle over naming rights which has dragged on for 18 months.

Heikki Kovalainen will be hoping for more reward for his hard efforts in 2012 (GPNow)

Currently based in Norfolk, the team has plans to move into the ex-Arrows and Super Aguri factory in Leafield during the season and has also made a change in its driver line-up.  Despite competing in the first pre-season test, Jarno Trulli was dropped and replaced by Russian Vitaly Petrov.  Petrov has two seasons at Renault, where he has achieved flashes of speed, but general inconsistency has cost him in the past.  However, he sounds refreshed and hopes that this team can bring the best out of him.  Team leader Kovalainen remains for a third year, hoping to end a barren pointless run that stretches back to Singapore 2009.  Heikki has produced miracles in the last two seasons, so hopefully he will get more reward in the form of points this season.  Expect heavily financially backed Petrov though to give Kovalainen more problems in setting the standard than Trulli ever did.

With former Jordan & Force India technical director Mark Smith and Mike Gascoyne in their design background, the team is well placed to give the established like Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso some major headaches in 2012.  The structure is in place, so no more excuses can be thought of.  It is time for Caterham to step into the midfield and remain a permanent fixture.

Vettel sends out decisive warning

THE second Formula One pre-season test started today in Barcelona and Sebastian Vettel means business.  The double world champion, aiming to become only the third driver to win three titles in a row dominated the opening day in Spain, outperforming his other main rivals.

Vettel looked sharp in the first day of Barcelona testing (BBC Sport)

Vettel took the fastest time this afternoon, after countryman Nico Hulkenberg made the early running this morning.  Hulkenberg, who lost time in the Jerez test through no fault of his own, looked comfortably at ease in a Force India that continues to set some consistent lap times.  His quickest today was a 1.23.440, only 0.2secs behind the formidable Red Bull/Vettel combination.  His total of 97 laps was useful mileage too.

Lewis Hamilton was third fastest, continuing McLaren’s quiet start to the winter programme, although their new car looks far better than the predecessor did at this stage last year.  We also got a view of the new Mercedes GP W03 today and it is likely that the team will use this test to establish reliability and durability on long runs, rather than outright pace.  This makes Michael Schumacher’s effort, sixth fastest and less than a second shy of Vettel’s benchmark of 1.23.265 all the more encouraging.

However, it was a difficult day for both Caterham F1 and Lotus Renault.  Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen stopped out on track with a suspected track rod failure.  Kovalainen was only in his ninth lap of the day, but further checks seemed to hint that it wasn’t a day-ending problem and the Finn managed another half an hour of running at the end of the day.  Vitaly Petrov will make his debut in the car tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Lotus packed up at lunchtime after Romain Grosjean did just seven laps, and complained of chassis problems.  The team are flying back the car to factory headquarters as a precuationary measure tonight and also aim to run with Grosjean again tomorrow.  However, this major headache could have a knockback on their entire week programme at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Traditionally, the first F1 pre-season test is used for basic running, with the second one showing some form tips for the early season flyaways.  Although there is still three days of running left in Barcelona, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have sent out a decisive warning to the rest; “Catch us if you can!”

BARCELONA DAY 1 TESTING TIMES – THE TOP EIGHT

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.23.265 – 79 laps

2. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes) 1.23.440 – 97 laps

3. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes) 1.23.590 – 114 laps

4. Daniel Ricciardo (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.23.618 – 76 laps

5. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1.24.100 – 75 laps

6. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes GP) 1.24.150 – 51 laps

7. Sergio Perez (Sauber Ferrari) 1.24.216 – 66 laps

8. Bruno Senna (Williams Renault) 1.25.711 – 97 laps