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GP Week : Issue 124
Mark Webber was emphatic about it on Saturday evening: “Either Fernando or me will win this one. Ferrari are strong; they’ve got the pace.” That pace was clear and bright on Saturday morning, in Free Practice Three (FP3) – when the sky, too, was kind of clear for the first time in what seemed like aeons. I was watching at Becketts, at the entrance to the dramatic left-right- left-right high-speed sequence that still spells ‘Silverstone’. Michael Schumacher was out first, piercing the dry line in his Mercedes – and then came Mark Webber, all reflexes, flashes of blue and yellow and rasping Renault throttle. The RB7 was the standard; it always is when seventh-gear corner entries give way to quick snicks down to sixth or fifth. Then came Felipe Massa, flat in seventh on metres of road over which Mark had been feathering, his Ferrari glued to the newly-lain surface as if it was...an RB7. Could it be? Was it real? Surely Felipe had been on Pirelli options.... Fernando Alonso was a little tentative at first, feeling, as he was, the dry grip for the first time that morning; but then he settled down and began to sculpt. He was flat through Maggotts – and then flat into the first right-hander, extending the full- throttle moment a few metres more even than Massa. The Ferrari sat square and evenly-balanced, riding an inside kerb as if it were a Fiat Punto and allowing Fernando room even for a late -ish apex as he finally left the complex. And this time we knew, for we had remembered to spot the tyres: the Ferrari was indeed on Pirelli primes. A new world was upon us, bringing with it a concept that was about as plausible as Fernando Alonso suddenly forgetting how to correct an oversteer moment: to wit, the Ferrari F150th at Silverstone seemed to be right there with the RB7 on fast corners. The Ferraris were quick on those Pirelli primes, too; that was the underscoring thing. Most of the opposition picked up a good 1.5 to 1.8 sec per lap when they bolted on the options on Saturday morning; Ferrari found but 1.2 sec – and that wasn’t because they were slow. Their margin of improvement was healthily small because their prime tyre base line was abnormally good. Pirelli confirmed that. Yes, Red Bull Racing would go on to lock out the front row in qualifying. This time, though, it was a close-run thing. Mark Webber on primes in Q1: 1min 32.670 sec. Felipe Masa on primes in Q1: 1min 32.760 sec. Seb Vettel on primes in Q1: 1min 32. 977 sec. Fernando Alonso on primes in Q1: 1min 32.986sec. RBR-Ferrari-RBR- Ferrari - all on hard tyres. With no-one else in sight. The Spanish GP might just as well have been an age away. Pat Fry’s new aero programme is working... In the end, on options, Fernando qualified third, beaten only by the margin of a tenth or so. Mark took the pole on this occasion, following Seb V on his first run in Q3 and beautifully managing a scary millisecond at Becketts, when his DRS was a fraction late with downforce on entry. For his part, Seb V was again visually clean and compliant but blew it with a mis- timed upshift out of the last corner: he hit the rev-limiter in third and was thus a fraction late with his paddle -shift to fourth. And then it rained. He had lost the pole by 0.032sec. Fernando was a near-perfect third but Felipe made an error or two on his Q3 blast, which left him fourth; still, though, he qualified comfortably ahead of the fastest McLaren-Mercedes. For that, you can probably cite the weekend’s politics – a non-stop farce in innumerable acts that may or may not have defined the off- throttle mapping regs for the remainder of the season. McLaren seemed to need to make more exhaust/diffuser layout changes than most teams in response to the latest (top secret!) TDs (Technical Directives) that flowed freely from the FIA and so took a decision on Saturday morning not to compromise their race prep with a last- minute change. The latest, race-defining TD wasn’t due until about 11.30 at the earliest and so they locked themselves into the best possible happy medium. As it turned out, the set-up was unhappy and rare – rare in the sense that McLaren were strangely far away even from Ferrari. Lewis Hamilton came to Silverstone looking for a change in fortune; instead, he would look at nine cars ahead of him on the grid, his first Q3 run additionally spoiled by a non-new set of options. (They had done one, drizzly lap in FP3 and so for ‘banker-lap’ tyres they were perfect; thing is, there were no ‘hot’ laps in the closing minutes of Q3 thanks to the rain.) Thus Mark’s comments about the likely two winners. He didn’t include Seb Vettel, of course, because @aussiegrit was not going to finish behind Seb at Silverstone in 2011; that was about as clear as the upcoming weather forecasts for race-day showers. Said precipitation left the grid sunny and dry but the northern end of the circuit – Luffield, Woodcote, Copse, Becketts – rooster-tail wet. Sergio Perez mowed down a bollard or two on his reconnaissance lap. That spooked everyone into starting on blue-lettered Pirelli intermediates. Everyone. (I was astonished, I have to admit: I thought someone down the back would at least Sixty years after Ferrari won its first grand prix at Silverstone, another scarlet Formula One car triumphed at the old airfield. PETER WINDSOR unstitches a suitable vintage battle. ANALYSIS Peter Windsor F1 Columnist F1 BRITAIN >> HAPPY ANNIVERSARY 23