SILVERSTONE, United Kingdom, June 29th, 2013 (F1Plus / Graham Keilloh) - From early on in today's Silverstone qualifying hour the formation of the first two rows looked set: it would be two Mercedes on the front row; two Red Bulls on the second. That is indeed what happened, but within that we had a relative surprise, in that it was Lewis Hamilton, not Nico Rosberg, who seized pole position. And what's more he seized it by a distance.
Why do I say this was a surprise? Well, for much of the weekend, including in the early throes of the qualifying session, it's been Nico, not Lewis, looking the happier in and out of the car. Both had complained about the W04's handling (though not its speed), but Lewis was the more persistently vocal, as well as was cutting a rather melancholy figure generally. And yet one can never underestimate Hamilton and his freakish driving skills, and they came good for him again today. Nico claimed provisional pole at the last, but only for a matter of seconds as Lewis immediately swept round Club to cut the beam close to half a second under his team mate's best. His engineer was fully justified in calling it "a storming effort."
Lewis still wasn't entirely content afterwards with his car's handling, stating: "We've got a great car this year, and to fine tune it seems to be a little bit harder than what I've experienced in the past...we made changes going into qualifying, it's still not perfect but it helped." He also noted that with his Merc "sometimes it is like a wild bull - you try to tame it." If this is so, he showed today that had he not been an F1 driver for whatever reason then perhaps his most appropriate calling would have been that of a champion rodeo rider. But Lewis nevertheless was pleased with his effort, and in particular that it was done in front of his home crowd: "The crowd do make a huge difference, seeing them turn up in their thousands and seeing all the flags waving. I come here with an extra boost of energy, I just want to pay them back."
Still, you wouldn't bet against a Bull of a different variety, the Red one piloted by Sebastian Vettel, prevailing over Lewis tomorrow. As we know, the pattern of 2013 in F1 has been for, to varying degrees, the Merc to be less potent in the race than in qualifying (this now makes it five poles from eight rounds so far this season, but only in Monaco has it been converted into a win). This may be the case again at Silverstone, and if so then it is Vettel who is best placed to take advantage. While Lewis noted that the Mercedes' "long run pace wasn't as bad (in practice) as we've seen in the past" he nevertheless added that tomorrow "it's going to be tough for us to keep Sebastian behind." Rosberg further added that come the race "I'm sure there'll still be other teams stronger than us."
Seb, as we've come to expect, was taking nothing for granted. Yet even he conceded that third is "a good position to start from." And it gets even better for the three-times world champion, as his closest championship rivals had a tough time of it. Fernando Alonso will start from a mere tenth, in a curious weekend for the Scuderia wherein neither car has looked close to the sharp end on pace at any point since a wheel was first turned yesterday. And this at a track that was supposed to suit the car, that the team has a good recent record on, and that was predicted to mark the start of its title fightback.
Vettel was charitable about Ferrari's plight afterwards (though whether this is an encouraging sign for the Italian team is another matter), noting that the F138's good tyre wear and race pace will mean the Ferrari "will be strong tomorrow, surely if everything goes as to plan they will finish higher up than tenth", as well as that what is expected to be hotter weather could really change the picture in terms of all of the cars' balance. But even so, challenging for a win looks a long shot for Alonso, minimising the points added to Seb's already sizable 36-point lead looks much more likely. And even if tyre degradation does becomes a factor, Alonso's got a problem in that he's got two Lotuses and two Force Indias ahead, cars that also tend to be strong in such circumstances. We all know the one about not counting chickens, particularly given the points are not to be handed out until tomorrow, but today's qualifying session had a strong feel of the ground starting to slip from under Alonso's feet in terms of his title chances.
It was a good day for unusual suspects. Paul Di Resta continued his and his team's fine form by claiming a starting slot of fifth, which for the reasons already outlined should set him up for a good race result (and who'd have thought that eight races in the team would still have the whip hand over McLaren on pace?). Unfortunately for Di Resta, he was demoted to the back of the grid after his car was found to be underweight at the end of qualifying. While Daniel Ricciardo is a master of timing, given that on the very weekend on which the second Red Bull seat for next year became officially available, he put in a stellar run to claim sixth on the grid. Lotus debuted its fabled 'double DRS' system (which has nothing to do with the DRS, despite its name - it's essentially a manual F-duct), but even with its lengthy gestation period it doesn't yet appear to be a magic bullet: Kimi Raikkonen starts only ninth, with Romain Grosjean squeaking ahead in eighth.
But for all of the qualifying session's surprises, it seems most likely that the race tomorrow will have a strong ring of familiarity about it. Once again, Sebastian Vettel looks set fair.