Formula 1 races are complex equations in which myriad different factors play a part, from the obvious criteria of raw speed to a car’s ability to perform consistently over the course of the grand prix, energy and tyre management and strategy calls... Not only that, but the entire complexion of a race can be turned on its head by unforeseen circumstances, such as an unexpected shower or an accident for a competitor that brings out the safety car.
Amongst the secrets to success in Formula 1, a good starting position can never be underestimated. Until 1932, the grid order was selected at random, but since then, it has been determined on merit by way of a qualifying session – a unique challenge that puts competitors to the ultimate test. The objective is to complete a lap in the fastest possible time, and this quest for split-second perfection truly brings out the best in many drivers. A case in point was the legendary Ayrton Senna, who prided himself each weekend on showcasing his outstanding single-lap prowess.
Since the Brazilian’s era – when he collected pole positions as if they were going out of fashion, and frequently using Renault power – the qualifying format has evolved and become somewhat more involved. Now, each session is split into three knock-out phases – Q1, Q2 and Q3 – so not only must they lap quickly, but drivers must also do so at the right moment!
All competitors tackle Q1, but only the top 16 from this 18-minute session progress through to Q2 – meaning any technical issue or on-track incident is liable to cost dear. Those eliminated at this stage are consigned to a position towards the rear of the grid, likely dashing all hopes of a decent finish before the starting lights have even gone out...
The 16 drivers to make it through Q1 are not out of the woods yet, however – far from it, as Q2 lies in wait. The stopwatch is reset and a 15-minute countdown begins – with single-lap speed once more the Holy Grail. On this occasion, it is only the top ten once the chequered flag falls that make it through to Q3 and the coveted pole position shoot-out.
Securing a spot in Q3 is the target of every team in the paddock. Making it this far guarantees a starting position inside the first five rows of the grid – and in so doing raises hopes of scoring points. Drivers have 12 minutes to post their fastest effort and haul themselves as far up the top ten as possible.
A solid indicator of progress in only its second season of competition is the fact that Renault Sport Formula One Team is beginning to stake a regular slot in Q3. Nico Hülkenberg lined up an excellent seventh in China and repeated the feat in Bahrain, where his team-mate Jolyon Palmer confirmed Renault’s upturn in form by placing tenth.
To set the seventh-fastest lap time in Bahrain, the German driver admits that he had to truly dig deep: “I really gave it my all,” he reflects. “I’d even go so far as to rate it as the equal-best qualifying lap of my career – right up there with the lap in Brazil in 2010 that earned me my first pole position in F1.” Hülkenberg’s impressive qualifying effort was subsequently backed up by his race day performance, as he annexed Renault Sport Formula One Team’s first points of the season the following day. Have no doubt: whilst a good place on the grid is not an absolute prerequisite for a strong result in the grand prix, it certainly helps...
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