Yet another very very exciting qualifying session took place in Shanghai for tomorrow's Chinese Grand Prix. The Shanghai circuit have always presented the teams and drivers with its own set of challenges. With its two ultra-long high speed straights coupled with several challenging high and low speed corners, this circuit never has a lot of overtaking opportunities. That is why for the front running teams, qualifying on the first row of the grid is absolutely crucial to be able to challenge for victory in Sunday's race.
Coming into Shanghai as Championship leaders, all eyes were on Brawn-Mercedes and particularly Jenson Button to qualify for this third straight pole position this season. But with all the controversies that have been going on in Formula 1 over the past week or so, specifically with the double-decker rear diffusers being declared legal by the FIA, quite a few teams have made some aerodynamic changes to their cars. McLaren-Mercedes have refreshed their rear diffusers, while Renault have gone a step further to introduce its own prototype of double decker rear diffusers. Ferrari have also made some aerodynamic changes to their F60s, but at the same time have decided not to run either of their cars with the KERS system installed in China this weekend. This decision by Ferrari was taken due to reliability problems with the KERS system, which might also be the reason why both the Renault R29s are running without KERS as well. So as far as KERS is concerned, that only leaves us with the two MP-4/24s from McLaren-Mercedes and the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld. Although Heidfeld's team mate Kubica tried out KERS in Friday practice, for the first time this season, but it looks like he will not be using it for the race itself. So in my opinion, only three out of the twenty cars on the grid using this new innovative system which is meant to be compulsory from next year does not bode very well for the future of KERS in Formula 1, does it?
So that was about all the changes we have had coming to the race weekend at Shanghai. The practice sessions saw several cars taking turns to post best lap times including Rosberg, Hamilton, Button, Webber and Vettel. The Ferraris, although not their usual self, was not too far off the pace though but the lack of KERS certainly did not help. But this time, Ferrari have at least learnt from their mistake of being too complacent in Sepang and kept both their cars out on their flying laps until the very last moment in Q1. Among Bourdais, Piquet, Sutil and Fisichella, BMW's Robert Kubica shocked everyone by failing to qualify for Q2. All the other cars passed through without much of an incident apart from Sebastian Vettel. While his team Mark Webber was out on the track doing flying laps one after the other, and posting great lap times, Vettel was seen sitting in his car inside the Red Bull pit garage. In fact, Vettel did not come out of the pits until it was only a couple of minutes before the end of Q1, did just one flying lap and that was good enough to see him through to Q2.
In Q2, the other BMW of Heidfeld only managed 11th position bringing to an end a bad qualifying session for the BMW Sauber team. The Toyota of Glock and the Williams of Nakajima came 14th and 15th respectively, and thus failing to go through to Q1 as well. Ferrari's Felipe Massa made a critical mistake in his final flying lap of Q2 which meant that he failed to improve his position from 12th. Later on though, he was moved down to 13th when Red Bull's Vettel, like in Q1, only came out for one flying lap at the very end and posted a superb time again. McLaren-Mercedes's Heikki Kovalainen found some traffic on his flying lap, or specifically one of the Red Bulls and one of the BMWs both of whom were on their in-laps, and as a result Kovalainen could only get to 12th position. His team mate though was obviously making good use of all the changes the team has done to the car over the last couple of weeks, and Hamilton was much faster than he was in the first two races of the season. The real surprise though was Swiss Rookie Sebastian Buemi in the Toro Rosso-Ferrari getting through to Q1.
Then it was time for the top ten shoot-out. Again, no real surprises here with the Brawns and the Red Bulls particularly quick in the early part of Q3. Red Bull's Vettel once again came out for just one flying lap, right at the very end, and stunned everyone by posting by far the best lap time and in the process ensuring the first ever pole position for the Red Bull Racing-Renault team. His team mate Webber came in a very close second getting a provisional one-two for Red Bull, when out of nowhere Renault's Fernando Alonso got in an extremely quick lap to split the Red Bull duo. The double world champion will start the race in 2nd as a result. The two Brawns were right behind, with Barrichello at 4th and current World Driver's Championship leader Jenson Button on 5th who was out-qualified by his Brazilian team mate for the first time this season. Although the two Brawn-Mercedes cars are carrying a slightly heavier fuel load than the Red Bulls, but the Red Bulls are still extremely quick even accounting for the anomaly in fuel loads. Toyota's Jarno Trulli came in 6th ahead of 7th place Nico Rosberg in the Williams-Toyota. Former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen qualified 8th for Ferrari, which is not too bad given that he is carrying a heavier fuel load than both the Brawns and the Red Bulls. But without KERS at his disposal, Raikkonen will be under pressure right from the beginning from reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who will start the race from 9th place. Being the one of three cars using KERS this weekend, Hamilton will probably get a jump start and overtake Raikkonen as soon as the lights go out for the start of the race. Once again though, surprise package Buemi in the Toro Rosso completes the top ten.
So that was the qualifying session of what promises to be a very exciting race tomorrow. We have to remember though that Toyota's Timo Glock will take a five place grid penalty due to a change in gearbox following a gearbox failure. So BMW's Robert Kubica, who was chasing for victory just three weekends ago in Australia will start the race from 17th, one position ahead of what he qualified in. UK viewers tune in to BBC One from 7:00 am tomorrow for live coverage of Round 3 for the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit.