Practice: If Nico Rosberg hoped to get the better of Lewis Hamilton in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix, Friday practice sessions would have given him a clear indication of the form the reigning world champion carried forward from one race weekend to another.
The Briton was by far the quicker of the two Mercedes drivers as has been the case all along this season. His best time of the Friday was set in afternoon when he lowered down his own benchmark by nearly four tenths with a time of 1:24.279.
Perhaps the only niggle on his pursuit to be on top of his game was the brake temperature peaking while setting the car up. The Mercedes W06 has been brake sensitive in demanding tracks before but the issues stemmed had appeared to be only minor. Third on the timingsheets was again reserved for the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
The German competing in Monza for the first time in Ferrari’s colours had found himself a shocking 1.588s off the pace of the already runaway championship leader Hamilton in morning practice. Ferrari have upgraded their engines for the home race but they were nowhere near a match to their main rivals Mercedes who spent all the remaining seven development tokens and ominously projected their own advantage.
But the scrap behind the Mercedes pair was so tight that anyone could jump the Ferraris and disposition them from a rather regular second row on the grid as Force India, Williams and Lotus posed a major threat with the power advantage of the Mercedes engines.
With a raft of penalties due to engine change and gearbox issues for the Renault-powered Red Bull and Toro Rosso teams, they were expected to suffer on a track where they traditionally underachieve. McLaren meanwhile opted to incur more blow to their disruptive season with a switch to ninth engines for both drivers.
With everything considered, Hamilton and Mercedes’ dominance in qualifying could be slacked off by the only unpredictable entity that is the forcecasted rain storms on Saturday. The track was wet even before the start of final practice and more rain was anticipated at the time for qualifying. As the track dried out and Hamilton still pulling out fastest laps, Vettel did give tifosi something to cheer about as he closed the gap to Hamilton by less than three tenths on his final soft tyre run in the last practice session.
Of the frontrunners, Hulkenberg set the timing screens alight with only a 1:26.130s as he was hampered by slow moving Sauber of Marcus Ericsson on approach to the high-speed Parabolica curve. While Vettel explored the track limits, Hamilton inquired about the cut off time in the first part of qualifying and did a 1:24.251s to go atop the leader board.
Both Manor and McLaren drivers were out on soft tyres from the word go, as Max Verstappen’s car was put together hastily to get him back on track. Meanwhile, the other Mercedes of Rosberg sat in second place ahead of Bottas, Vettel and Massa. With four minutes remaining, Verstappen was back in the car to get a timed lap on board.
Rosberg lowered the gap to his teammate by 0.358s as the top six were covered by less than a second. Under two minutes left to play, soft tyres were the order of the day to get a berth in Q2. Toro Rosso’s Carlos sainz improved on his time to move himself up to P12 while the last gasp effort to get his teammate on track ended in the Dutch teenager losing the left side bodywork at his only flying lap.
McLaren’s chances of getting at least one car into Q2 floundered when Ricciardo managed to bang in a lap good enough for 14th. Consequently, both McLarens were knocked out for the sixth time with Button finishing 16th ahead of Alonso, Stevens, Merhi and Vertappen with no timed lap. However, the McLaren drivers’ engine penalties meant that they will more likely to start from the back end of the grid.
Out of Q1: Button, Alonso, Stevens, Merhi and Verstappen
Hamilton set an early marker again with a 1:23.383s, over seven tenths ahead of team-mate Rosberg. To the delight of the home crowd, Vettel split the Mercedes duo before Raikkonen bumping his teammate down a place to third. In the final few minutes of the session, it was all mixed up between Williams, Lotus, Force India and Sauber as pressure mounted to get a berth into Q3.
It seemed like Sainz, Kvyat and Ricciardo wouldn’t run due to the engine and other penalties incurred as they’re going to start from the back anyway. Grosjean’s final flier put him in the safe zone by pushing both Sauber’s out of top ten before Ericsson recovered to slot behind the Frenchman thus eliminating Maldonado and Nasr. Despite the final effort by Sainz and Kvyat, they could only finish behind Maldonado and Nasr.
Out of Q2: Maldonado, Nasr, Sainz, Kvyat and Ricciardo
Hulkenberg was the first to head out on track for the 12 minute pole-decider. Behind him, Rosberg and the Williams pair followed up. The Force India driver set a time of 1:25.317s before Rosberg went on top with a much quicker lap. However, the latter German’s time of 1:23.942s was beaten by two thousandths courtesy of Massa.
While Perez was told to box after a single run, Hamilton’s benchmark time of 1:23.397s was only just over three tenths ahead of Vettel and Raikkonen as expectations were still hanging on the Ferrari duo. Disaster struck for Hulkenberg once again as he lost power and pulled up just out of harm’s way at the end of pits before mechanics ran to push the stricken car back to the pits.
In the final pole shootout, Hamilton didn’t improve but his initial benchmark was good enough to secure him 11th and seventh consecutive pole position in 2015. He is just one pole shy of Ayrton Senna’s all-time record of eight straight poles.
Kimi Raikkonen improved to go second quickest; his first front row for Ferrari since 2009 Monaco. Third came his Ferrari teammate Vettel who will be joined on the second row by the disappointed works Mercedes of Rosberg as he reverted to the old engine following final practice. Williams of Massa finished fifth nd will start alongside teammate Bottas while Perez, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Ericsson completed the top ten.
Top 10: Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel, Rosberg, Massa, Bottas, Perez, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Nasr.
Top Ten – Formula One polesitters