I think we probably witnessed something pretty special today.
I still haven’t made my mind up when it comes to Sebastian Vettel’s personality, but I’m now certain that the man is a truly outstanding driver.
Qualifying for the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix was, on the whole, as expected, but I don’t think anybody expected the gripping showdown between McLaren and Red Bull in the dying stages of Q3.
But how did we get there…
Qualifying One opened to a pretty relaxed start. The pit lane remained empty for a good two minutes before Vitantonio Liuzzi took to the track to record a 1:43:12.
After about five minutes the bigger teams began to enter the picture and at this early stage it was clear that the McLaren team were the pace setters.
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button lapped confidently in first and second, whilst Mark Webber struggled to get higher than P5.
Sebastian Vettel was faster than his team mate, but despite getting up to P2, the world champion looked a little off colour.
The session was red flagged with 12 minutes remaining when Sebastian Buemi’s left side pod flew off mid lap.
Nobody was hurt and the session restarted after a couple of minutes.
Ferrari have admitted that they don’t know what is wrong with their cars. In a very honest series of interviews the team have stated that they are working hard to address their issues and are at the moment racing in "damage limitation mode."
Neither Ferrari driver felt safe enough to complete Q1 on the harder tyres and although Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso locked out the two top spots after their first runs, it was purely because of the use of the softer compound tyres.
There was some tension at the end of the session when both Mercedes cars occupied the drop out zone, and Mark Webber even slipped down to P15!
However, when the unlikely strugglers pulled their fingers out we ended up with a pretty predictable eliminated list.
I think it is important to stress that Malaysia’s Q1 was actually pretty good. Sure, the usual suspects dropped out, but all of the teams were fast enough to actually race tomorrow and Lotus were only half a second away from making it through.
Q1 Top Three:
Pastor Malonado, Heikki Kovalainen, Jarno Trulli,, Timo Glock, Jerome d'Ambrosio, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Narain Karthikeyan.
Sebastian Buemi was first out in the second session and set an opening time of 1:37:975. The Torro Rosso driver was no doubt relieved that his car remained in tact for the rest of the session!
Whatever problems Red Bull seemed to have been suffering in Q1 were clearly sorted by Q2 as the afternoon developed into a close battle between Red Bull and McLaren.
Hamilton had a tiny wobble towards the end of the session when he found himself down in P11, but a quick lap from the McLaren man ensured a P2 finish.
It was Hamilton’s team mate who stole the show in Q2 though. Jenson Button pulled a rocket time out of nowhere and stormed into P1 relatively early in Q2; no one could touch Button.
Renault left it quite late to set just one time, but their brave strategy pulled off when both drivers comfortably made it through.
Ferrari struggled to come close to the top two teams, but seemed comfortable in P4 (Massa), and P5 (Alonso).
Yet again Mercedes GP found themselves in trouble and yet again Nico Rosberg was far quicker than his team mate.
Rosberg found the time he needed to survive, whilst Michael Schumacher found himself out in Q2…again!
Q2 Top Three:
Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Buemi, Jamie Alguarsuari, Paul di Resta, Rubens Barrichello, Sergio Perez, Adrian Sutil.
Qualifying Three was one of the closest for a long time.
Red Bull and McLaren decided to go for two runs, whilst everyone else opted for just one in the hope of saving a crucial set of fresh tyres.
The fact that the two top teams were doing a two lap run made for a great show. We’d get a close battle followed by a slight lull, before a final exhilarating fight for P1!
Hamilton set the first time of 1:35:00!
Jenson Button went second, only to be dropped by Mark Webber and then Sebastian Vettel.
Round one finished: Hamilton, Vettel, Webber, Button.
Whilst the front runners returned to the pits to regroup, the rest of the field took to the track.
Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa did great work fighting their Ferrari’s around the track and I think were probably as happy as they could be with P5 (Alonso), and P 7 (Massa).
Nick Heidfeld split the Ferraris and Vitaly Petrov will be pleased to have finished P8. Nico Rosberg and Kamui Kobayashi closed out the top 10.
However, the attention soon switched to the big four.
As the four drivers passed the sector markers fastest times were being traded faster than I could record.
Hamilton looked to have the battle sorted when he posted a 1:34:97. This was too much for Webber and Button, but there was still one man left who could topple McLaren.
Sebastian Vettel pulled an absolutely ridiculous lap out of his car and crossed the line with a 1:34:87! It was a truly fantastic end to the session and a great result for Red Bull.
As I have said, the Malaysian qualifying session was pretty good today. It is very clear that the fight will be between Red Bull and McLaren, but I think Ferrari will look slightly better in race trim.
My prediction for race winner?
Well, for me it has to be Vettel. I just think he is in a different zone from the other drivers and whilst I can see the likes of Hamilton pushing for victory, I just think Vettel has that extra level.
The Malaysian GP rarely disappoints, I can’t see tomorrow being a dull event!
1 Sebastian Vettel RBR-Renault 1:34.870
2 Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:34.974
3 Mark Webber RBR-Renault 1:35.179
4 Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:35.200
5 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:35.802
6 Nick Heidfeld Renault 1:36.124
7 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:36.251
8 Vitaly Petrov Renault 1:36.324
9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:36.809
10 Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:36.820
11 Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1:37.035
12 Sebastien Buemi STR-Ferrari 1:37.160
13 Jaime Alguersuari STR-Ferrari 1:37.347
14 Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1:37.370
15 Rubens Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:37.496
16 Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1:37.528
17 Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:37.593
18 Pastor Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 1:38.276
19 Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 1:38.645
20 Jarno Trulli Lotus-Renault 1:38.791
21 Timo Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:40.648
22 Jerome d'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth 1:41.001
23 Vitantonio Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth 1:41.549
24 Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1:42.574