It was a Saturday like any other Saturday – Sebastian Vettel was unstoppable in his Red Bull, as he inched ever closer to his fourth world championship, and the rest of the field battled it out to be second best.
We saw a lot more strategy in qualifying than we normally do, with several drivers including Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and the Mclarens of Sergio Perez and Jenson Button swapping a soft tire run in Q3 for a medium tire run, the goal being to run long in the first stint of the race tomorrow.
This meant that a second consecutive Red Bull front row lockout was not on the cards, though Webber did qualify in fourth, just behind the two Mercedes of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, much higher than he and his Red Bull team anticipated. Felipe Massa of Ferrari, still hunting for a drive in 2014, showed well in fifth, while Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus slotted in just behind him in sixth.
Nico Hulkenberg also continues to impress, with the Sauber driver taking seventh place after a troubled Friday. This speed was anticipated early on today, as the German went fourth fastest in this mornings truncated free practice session, just behind the Red Bulls and Alonso, and ahead of Romain Grosjean.
Alonso ended eighth due to his alternate strategy, just ahead of the two Mclarens of Perez and Button. This was the first time Perez out-qualified his world champion teammate since the Italian Grand Prix back in early September. With his future at Mclaren in doubt, it would do his psyche, if anything, wonders to beat his teammate in a fair fight and challenge the cars ahead.
The usual suspects from Toro Rosso, Williams, Force India and Esteban Gutierrez of Sauber were behind the top-10. The latter expected to be higher after a tough start to the weekend, but a rough trip over the kerbs in Q1 strained his neck and back. He qualified 16th.
The biggest surprise of the day, however, was Grosjean. The Frenchman has been in excellent form all weekend, often being the only one to show Red Bull-challenging pace in practice, and potential front row qualifying pace earlier this morning. However, in Q1, Grosjean failed to advance. The reason? He was trying to make it through the session on just the slower, medium compound tires. He has successfully done so every race since Singapore, but today, his Lotus team miscalculated the cutoff time to advance to Q2 by just a few tenths, meaning Grosjean had no more time to improve when they realized his time was not good enough.
Passing on the Buddh International Circuit is notoriously difficult. Only 16 passing moves were made in last year’s race, even with two DRS zones, so Grosjean has his work cut out for him if he is to keep his podium streak going. The team is confident he will be able to improve, with an alternate strategy looking like the most reasonable option to do so.
The race begins tomorrow morning at 4:30 am on the NBC Sports Network.