Sunday, 12 July 2009

Mark Webber storms through a chaotic Qualifying session at the Nurburgring to snatch his maiden pole position

Set in the heart of the Eifel mountains in western Germany, the 14-mile long Nurburgring Nordschleife is one of the longest, most fearsome and most demanding purpose built race tracks in the world. Just adjacent to the Nordschleife however, is the "new" Nurburgring which is a 3-mile long modern grand prix race track that currently hosts most of the major racing events including Formula 1. Although nothing like the Nordschleife, the new Nurburgring (also known as the Nurburgring GP-Strecke) is still a pretty demanding and interesting race track and is one of the favourites among drivers and spectators alike.

So approaching the halfway mark of the season, Round 9 of the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship has brought us to this legendary race track for this year's German Grand Prix. In recent years, this race has been dominated by Michael Schumacher which has also meant that the grand stands were always filled with people wearing Ferrari red, supporting their home hero. This season, we have five drivers with German origin including Force-India's Adrian Sutil, BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, Williams' Nico Rosberg, Toyota's Timo Glock and none other than Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing. Although Ferrari still has a big fan base here in Germany, as a legacy of the Schumacher days, this year we have already seen a lot of Red Bull fans in the grand stands cheering for Sebastian Vettel who has been tipped by some to be a legend in the making, the next Schumacher.

Three weeks ago, Sebastian Vettel led a dominant Red Bull one-two finish at Silverstone in what was his Championship rival Jenson Button's home grand prix. So everyone expected Vettel to continue the run in front of his home crowd. The only problem though, could be in the form of Vettel's team mate Mark Webber. Although the Australian driver is a lot more experienced than Vettel, he has never qualified on pole or achieved victory in his entire Formula One career. Vettel however, in only his second F1 season, has already got three victories under his belt with two of those coming this year. So the pressure was on Webber to deliver some good performances to ensure that his team does not start favouring Vettel to challenge Jenson Button's lead in the Driver's Championship. Now it seems like Webber can prove that he can be just as good as his hyped up team mate, because on Saturday afternoon in a very chaotic Qualifying session, the Australian got pole position for the first time ever in his career.

The weather has been playing hide and seek all throughout the weekend, and there are heavy rain shower forecasts for Sunday's race. But who could imagine that it will make the Qualifying session so exciting? The first part of qualifying, Q1, went without much drama and was a dry session. Most of the cars did a few laps on the medium hard prime tyres before switching to the super-soft option tyres to post some fast lap times. Among the front runners were the two Red Bulls but also Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, the two BrawnGPs and the two Ferraris as well. But it was Q2 that would turn out to be absolutely crazy. Just as the pit lane lights went green, indicating the start of 15 minutes of Q2, all of the 15 cars came out with the option tyres on to try and get a lap or two in. Rain was due very shortly however, and most of the cars could not even complete their outlap before it started raining. Formula 1 cars are pretty useless in the rain with the slick tyres on, so all the cars went back to the pits to change to the intermediate tyres. Now it seemed like although it was raining, the track was not wet enough for the intermediates to work properly and most of the cars were still struggling for grip. As the rain started to subside a little bit, BrawnGP's Rubens Barrichello took a gamble and changed back to the slick tyres again. This gamble paid off big time as the Brazilian gunned in a couple of storming laps. Seeing this, all the drivers who were on intermediate tyres went back to the pits to change to the super-soft slick tyres as well. However, by the time these cars came back out, it had started raining pretty heavily again and now it was time to really use the intermediates. Most of the front-runners were still able to go back to the pits, change to the intermediate tyres and get a lap or two to get through to Q3. Jenson Button got through to Q3 in the last minute, because in all the rain-tyres debacle, he had been pushed into the knockout zone. Double World Champion Fernando Alonso however was not lucky enough and had to settle for 12th. The big surprise here was that Alonso's Brazilian team mate Nelson Piquet Jr., who has had a very dismal season so far to say the least, out-qualified the Spaniard for the first time this season.

By the time Q3 started, the rain had stopped but the cars did not come out straight away as all the teams wanted the track to dry out a little bit. When they did come out, all the cars came out on slicks and although they were struggling for grip in the cold and wet conditions, they were still able to post relatively decent lap times. Towards the end of Q3, Lewis Hamilton, whose McLaren has had a raft of new upgrades introduced for this weekend, got provisional pole. He was soon pipped by fellow Brit Jenson Button, before Rubens Barrichello moved to provisional pole. But at the death of Q3, Red Bull's Australian driver Mark Webber produced a brilliant lap of 1:32.230 to snatch his maiden pole position. His team mate Sebastian Vettel only managed 4th. So behind Webber, Barrichello, Button and Vettel is defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton in 5th with the Briton's best qualifying this year and he is ahead of his team mate Heikki Kovalainen. In 7th place is perhaps the biggest surprise of the day; it is German driver Adrian Sutil taking his Force-India team into Q3 for the first time ever in the their history. Sutil is ahead of the two Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen, with Nelson Piquet Jr. in the Renault completing the top ten. The two Ferraris are probably running with a fuel load heavier than that of everyone in front of them.

So Sunday's race is going to be a phenomenal one, with the weather playing a particularly big part. What promises to make it even more interesting is that we probably will see the rain coming on and off, or only coming for a while in the middle part of the race with dry conditions on either side of it. That could potentially mess up the race strategies for most of the front-runners, particularly the ones that are light on fuel. Who will win the race? It literally can be anyone, and we will find that out in a few hours' time. My heart wants Sebastian Vettel to shine in front of his home crowd and of course for Ferrari to get some decent results as well. For UK viewers, coverage of the German Grand Prix starts on BBC One and the BBC Sport Website live from the Nurburgring at 12:10pm. Until then, drive safely!

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