Surprisingly, I managed to wake up in time to watch all of qualifying. It was more interesting in each session than might have been expected.
Before we get to qualifying, some poaching news. McLaren have reportedly hired Peter Prodromou, an aerodynamicist and (as the BBC put it) a ‘chief lieutenant’ of Adrian Newey. It sounds like he’ll join McLaren in 2015, possibly as lead designer, and is reckoned to be quite a good signing.
Q1 saw the pointless teams go out. Sutil was also to leave the stage here. Jean-Eric Vergne likewise left qualifying, but he did have the excellent excuse that his rear brakes burst into flames and he was forced to pull over (wisely finding a marshal station so that the fire could be extinguished swiftly, minimising the rebuilding work for his engineers).
Q2’s slowest driver was Ricciardo, so his team mate will start just 2 places behind him. Both Williams were ditched here, but in 13th and 15th, which is a little better than they’ve been of late. After getting through the Q3 in Korea and Singapore (the latter somehow escaping the minds of both Ben Edwards and David Coulthard who thought it had only happened once before) Gutierrez might be disappointed with 14th. Perez and Di Resta just failed to make the cut.
Q3 saw a rare thing happen. Webber’s car was working, and the KERS in Vettel’s broke. It’s apparently worth about 0.4s a lap or so in Japan, which is pretty hefty. Webber was able to take advantage and secure pole position, his first this year and also the first time he’s beaten Vettel. (I believe Vettel and Hulkenberg share the record for most dominant qualifying performances compared to their team mates this year). However, Vettel was only one-tenth slower in 2nd, so if they can mend KERS for the race (it seems to be an intermittent problem) it could yet become a procession.
Hamilton was 3rd, closely followed by Grosjean. With solid race pace and good tyre wear, the Frenchman could yet spring a surprise. Massa was an impressive 5th, with Rosberg 6th, a full seven-tenths off his team mate. Hulkenberg continues his good run with 7th, a few hundredths ahead of Alonso. Raikkonen and Button round out the top 10.
Unfortunately, Webber has a history of bad starts, so it’s possible Vettel will just take him off the line and then cruise off into the sunset. However, if Vettel starts badly then he could easily get swamped, and if he lacks KERS (unlikely, I suspect) and those around him use it off the line he could lose many places.
Mercedes have been going backwards in races recently. Last time this was due to a combination of bad luck and strategic incompetence. Lotus, meanwhile, has been going forwards (Raikkonen’s starting position seems to have little correlation with his final result). Ferrari are a bit lacklustre in both qualifying and the race. I rate Hulkenberg, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to hang on to 7th (his record of keeping a high place when qualifying’s good is pretty solid).
Suzuka’s weather forecast is for it to be absolutely dry. A safety car is still possible (the track’s fairly narrow and some run-off areas are quite small) though. A quick wiki-check of the 10 most recent races (2001-2012, discounting 2007 and 2008 which were at Fuji) reveals a 5:5 level of safety car deployment (possibly an underestimate as the earlier race reports are rather concise).
I think that Betfair’s 2.8 for No Safety Car is therefore too long, and have backed it (no point hedging, of course). If the odds shorten to evens (for both) then I’ll effectively hedge by backing Yes, so it’s a shot to nothing.
There were three other bets I considered (all Ladbrokes):
Lotus to top score at 13
Hulkenberg to be top six at 3.25
Webber to win at 3.25
I’m tempted by the Lotus bet, but I do think it’s reliant upon Red Bull cocking up horrendously. Even if either driver got a puncture on lap 1 I think the other has a great chance of winning, meaning it’d take a Lotus double podium (for example) and the second Red Bull driver finishing 7th or lower (6th in this scenario would equal a tie).
I also think Webber’s got a chance, but if KERS is fixed Vettel will simply be faster, even without it he’s about equal, and Webber has no luck whatsoever (although it must be said so far this race weekend it’s the German who has kein Glück).
The third bet considered (and one I’ve taken) is for Hulkenberg to be top six at 3.25 (same odds with Betfair, but there’s 5% commission there). He’d need to gain a single place, and has proven very solid in recent races. Given the Mercedes often go backwards, Webber tends to have bad luck and Hulkenberg starts on the optimal (odd-numbered) side of the track, I think it’s worth a shot.
So, two bets for tomorrow. No Safety Car at 2.8, and Hulkenberg to be top 6 at 3.25 (neither hedged).
The race starts at 7am, UK time.