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Christine

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

There but for the grace of Marussia // What the mixed up qualifying session at Spa showed us

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One of the more interesting aspects of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend was qualifying. The race promised plenty yet under-delivered, while Saturday was one of the more exciting qualifying sessions we’ve seen in a long time. It was the elements outside of team control that made the difference, as is often the case. Formula One employees know their jobs inside out and it takes something natural, unexpected and usually weather-related to mess up the order of things.

Nico Hülkenberg, Sauber
Credit: Sauber AG

This weekend, it was rain that ramped the excitement up. There were showers bookending the three sessions, making tyre choices crucial to getting a good time. We know that the backmarker teams took the gamble on dry tyres on a drying track while those around them were happy to remain on the green-striped intermediates. This allowed through to the second session of qualifying three of the "new team" drivers, one Caterham and both Marussias. It was a good day for them, but it was also very telling to see who fell back in their place.

In the drop zone

Without the buffer of four slower cars to prop up the lower end of the grid, we saw a stark message that there are clear teams struggling for pace. Williams saw both their drivers drop out, as well as both of the Toro Rosso pairing. It’s not unknown for Vergne to struggle on a Saturday, finding single lap pace something tricky to extract from the car. However, Daniel Ricciardo has been on fine form in qualifying recently - impressing just when he needed to keep his name in the spotlight. A small turn of fortune and there he was, down and out in the first twenty minutes.

Ricciardo was joined in the drop zone by Esteban Gutiérrez, Sauber’s young rookie who himself isn’t a stranger to an early exit on a Saturday. This weekend things went particularly badly, as the Mexican found himself way down in 21st place – lining up on the grid next to the only Caterham who didn’t opt to bolt on the favourable tyres. Although not entirely his fault, this could have reflected badly on Esteban, particularly when compared to his teammate’s performance.

Nico Hülkenberg made his way into the second session of qualifying, and earned himself an eleventh place grid slot. He narrowly missed out on a chance to fight in the top ten, and settled for best of the rest. Unfortunately for him, the expected benefit of being able to choose your race tyres was negated by the use of intermediates throughout the final session.

That final session

It was in that final session that Paul di Resta finally found himself some luck. After having several qualifying strategies screwed up by his team during this season, the Force India driver took matters into his own hands and made the call to head out on intermediate tyres long before anyone else. Whilst the rest of the field piled out of the pit lane with slick tyres on, Paul waited in the garage and watched as the crowds put up their umbrellas. Taking a cue from the audience, Di Resta decided on inters and headed out for a flying lap - just as the remaining nine realised their dry compounds weren’t dealing with the conditions very well.

Di Resta’s hard work was undone by a distracted Pastor Maldonado who caused a collision and knocked the Force India out

It could have been a pole position for Di Resta, his first in F1, but the rain died off, the track dried up, and the natural order of things was resumed. It was a fifth place for Force India in the end, still a very good performance and one Di Resta doesn’t think would have been possible without the gamble.

Come race day, all Di Resta’s hard work was undone by a distracted Pastor Maldonado who caused a collision and knocked the Force India out of the race. The fate of Force India in Belgium rested on Adrian Sutil’s hands, and the German could only manage ninth. He picked up a couple of points but it wasn’t enough to hold off McLaren’s Jenson Button, who scooped several more crucial points by finishing sixth.

McLaren have finally managed to pull ahead of Force India, after closing the gap in the constructor’s championship and leapfrogging them in this race. Both teams are now yielding similar performances - inconsistent, occasionally fast, lacking the serious performance required to make any headway on the leaders.

The Toro Rosso duo managed to recover very well from their disappointing qualifying, and Ricciardo scraped into the top ten for a single point, with Jean-Éric Vergne crossing the line for twelfth. Intriguingly, both managed to finish ahead of Nico Hülkenberg who had started far in front of them but was having his own difficult afternoon. The Sauber driver was only one place ahead of his teammate at the chequered flag – despite Gutiérrez having to start from the last row on the grid, and take a drive through penalty for an overtaking manoeuvre gone wrong.

Hard to imagine

A dry race restored drivers to the positions you would more likely expect them to be in, leaving Saturday as the only intriguing element of the weekend’s action. How would our midfield teams fare if they didn’t have the Caterham and Marussia cars to keep them off the back rows of the grid? How much more interesting would qualifying be if the remaining two new teams could fight for position rather than being predictable in their pace?

Jean-Éric Vergne, Toro Rosso
Credit: Rys/Getty

It’s currently hard to imagine either being able to battle forwards under normal circumstances but things could change eventually. Caterham and Marussia have steadily closed the gap to the cars in front, no longer at risk of dropping out of the 107% time required to qualify for a race. They aren’t the only teams now operating on a shoe-string budget, and with the raft of regulation changes coming in next year, who’s to say if they won’t make huge strides forward in 2014?

There are far too many unknowns to predict what qualifying will be like next year, who will be fast and who will still be struggling. But qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix gave us a glimpse of what could have been - and for the midfield teams, it was likely an image they would rather forget.