The headlines from qualifying may be that Vettel pipped the McLarens to pole position, and the grid order for the race, but hidden within the laptime data is reason for McLaren fans to be quietly hopeful. It’s all to do with the pace of the cars of the harder (medium) tyre. From the intelligentF1 modelling of the last few races, the pace difference between the prime and option tyres in the race is about half what is was in qualifying. At Abu Dhabi, this gap is two seconds in qualifying – but critically, this gap is not consistent between the cars.
For most of the cars then, we can expect the harder tyres to be about one second slower than the soft option tyres, and therefore, they will (generally) be left for a single shorter stint at the end. The life of the soft tyres seems to be around 20 laps, which on a two stop strategy (I don’t expect much variation on this – but someone is bound to try something) will leave of the order of 15 laps at the end on the slower tyre. The good news for McLaren fans is that qualifying suggests their car will be fast in these last laps – about 0.3s faster than the Red Bull. If they can stay close, then we could be in for a classic. Also fast on the mediums are Rosberg (looking very good for some serious points) and Toro Rosso. Unfortunately for the Italian team, the pace of the top five teams looks to be too much for them this weekend.
For the others, there is always the possibility of a Sauber one-stop, but this is a risk as their pace on the medium tyre doesn’t seem to be so good – maybe things will be different in the race. Perez could try to protect his position by staring on the harder tyres so that he will not lose time even if he loses positions at the start as he will still be able to go full pace on a slower tyre. This might also be a good strategy for Toro Rosso if they think they will be quick in the race, and likely to get held up in the early laps. Renault don’t look in the hunt for points, and Williams are adrift on pace as well as filling the back row of the grid. Can Lotus stay ahead of them? Probably not on pure pace.
So Vettel vs. the McLarens, then. Will the medium tyre pace of the silver cars prove decisive, or will it all be over by the time we get to them? We’ll see tomorrow.