Five things we learnt from Brazilian GP qualifying
McLaren continue to go from bad to very worse, Rosberg’s resurgence gathers pace, but Renault fail to deliver a breakthrough...
By William Esler, James Galloway and Pete Gill
Last Updated: 15/11/15 2:48pm
No light at the end of the tunnel for McLaren
Qualifying in Brazil was a tale of two teams. Two very different teams and two very different tales.
In the champion's corner were the champions themselves as Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton delivered the Silver Arrows' 14th front row lockout of another triumphant record-breaking season.
And then, looking anything but champion, there was McLaren with their all-champion line-up of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso reduced to the role of chumps as the fallen superpowers suffered their eighth collective failure of the year to progress from Q1. In a year which has consistently plunged from bad to worse, this was a new nadir encapsulated by the suitably ridiculous and undignified sight of Alonso sunbathing by the side of the track and then duly ridiculed across social media by the #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBe hashtag.
After the humbling, the humiliation.
"Nobody could have expected it to be this difficult for so long," remarked Sky F1's Martin Brundle. But the thing to remember is that nobody at McLaren, even when team personnel were presciently predicting a dire start to their reunion with Honda, expected it to be anything like this bad at this stage of the year.
"We are not going to have a race-winning car at the first race, but we might have one at the last race," predicted Button in March. "There have been years when we have started very good with Ferrari and then when it counts in November we have never won," added Alonso as he sought to explain why he had abandoned the Scuderia. "I want to win in November." Instead, Alonso and Button's mock podium ceremony will be the closest either of them come to winning this year.
It amounts to a woeful waste of talent and a staggering indictment of Honda's wherewithal for their return to F1. Believe in McLaren-Honda, to cite another hashtag, has become a leap of faith in desperate need of an overdue miracle.
Rosberg's run of form continues
Nico Rosberg's late-season resurgence continued in Brazil with his fifth consecutive pole position.
After outpacing Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton just once on a Saturday in the opening 13 races of 2015, the German has rediscovered the form that saw him win the pole position trophy in 2014.
The question is, what has changed and where was that form earlier in the season when the title fight was still on?
"I don't know whether he's been riled by being humiliated in some sense by Lewis by being beaten and he's now actually more motivated than ever before," pondered Sky Sports F1's Damon Hill.
Hamilton suggested in the post-qualifying press conference that as the title was secure and he had won the pole trophy his run of qualifying defeats didn't matter. However, it shouldn't be overlooked that he was defeated by Rosberg in Japan, Russia and the USA when the championship fight was still alive.
One reason for the reversal of qualifying fortunes could be that the updates being brought to the car simply suit Rosberg better. The new engine Mercedes first introduced at Monza was deployed with a view to 2016 - as are many of the other tweaks being made to the W06.
That potentially bodes well for a tighter title fight between the two Mercedes drivers next year.
Still no breakthrough for Renault
Although those working at Red Bull will inevitably be relieved by the news this weekend that the company now don't intend to quit the sport after all, the inescapable irony of the situation is that the team are set to be 'saved' by the very thing that pushed their bosses to contemplate quitting F1 in the first place - a Renault engine.
While the terms of the marriage may be currently being rewritten, and the engine probably won't even be badged under the French manufacturer's name in 2016, Red Bull's prospects in the short-term at least will still largely be wedded to the competitiveness of the Renault V6.
And, on the evidence of Interlagos qualifying, the car marker remains some way from finding a breakthrough in F1's second turbo era. "We've seen it hasn't really given us anything to be honest," said a disappointed Daniel Ricciardo after his car equipped with the upgraded Renault engine was outqualified by the car still fitted with the old one. "So obviously back to the drawing board for Renault and we've got to try and find something from it." The Australian has even taken a 10-place grid penalty for the privilege.
Red Bull had always been sceptical that the upgraded unit, which has been in the works at Viry-Chatillon since the summer, would deliver much in the way of lap time gain, but the team seemingly hadn't envisaged the new unit lapping slower than the old one down Interlagos's straights. The speed trap suggested the difference was less than 1kph, but that's certainly not what Renault would have envisaged after months of development.
So, while the former champions may be about to stick around after all, emergency hired-helper Mario Illien looks to have a big job on his hands if Red Bull mediocre, by their standards, 2015 campaign isn't to be repeated all over again.
Is Maldonado good enough to lead Renault's F1 return?
Following Romain Grosjean's departure to Haas, Pastor Maldonado will take on the responsibility of team leader at what is highly-likely to be the Renault works team in 2016 - but is he up to the task?
On his day the Venezuelan is quick - as demonstrated by his surprise victory for Williams at the 2012 Spanish GP. He also won the GP2 title in 2010, beating a field that featured a host future F1 drivers including Sergio Perez, the late Jules Bianchi, Marcus Ericsson and Max Chilton.
But when a driver is better known for his crashes than his racing, clearly something is awry.
In Brazil there were no accidents, but there was a distinct lack of pace from Maldonado. He dropped out in the first part of qualifying and was only 0.04 seconds quicker than McLaren's Jenson Button. Given the Mercedes-powered Lotus is powered by the best engine on the grid and McLaren the worst in Honda, it underlines how poor his performance was. Grosjean, meanwhile, was 11th quickest in Q1 and 0.33 seconds up the road - a huge margin around a short lap at Interlagos.
The deficit is made to look worse by the fact Maldonado takes part in every session whereas Grosjean has been giving up P1 outings for Jolyon Palmer. Yet despite less time to set up the car, the Frenchman was not only ahead in qualifying, but immediately beat his team-mate in Practice Two.
As a rookie in 2016, Palmer cannot be expected to lead the team. Their problem is that Maldonado currently isn't producing the performances to reassure that he is capable of heading Renault's F1 return.
F1 - rightly - takes a back seat
One of the biggest strengths - and appeals - of sport is its ability to transport you away from the stresses and strains of every-day life, but sometimes even that's not enough to completely shut out the wider world - and that was certainly the case at Interlagos on Saturday following the atrocious events in Paris the previous night. And rightly so.
The Brazilian GP paddock may be 9,000km away from the distressed streets of the French capital, but thoughts were understandably back in Europe for much of a muted day. For all the rivalries and high politicking, the F1 community is a close-knit fraternity and one which knows how to pull together at times of troubles - a quality which would likely have proved particularly comforting for the French nationals involved in the sport, from Romain Grosjean, to the engineers and other team staff working at Renault and elsewhere.
"Going round and round in circles in a racing car suddenly seems completely irrelevant," remarked a sombre Martin Brundle in commentary at the start of qualifying. The show had to go on, as it will again on Sunday, but whatever happens on-track over the rest of this weekend has certainly been cast into sobering perspective.
Watch the Brazilian GP live on Sky Sports F1. Race-show coverage begins at 2.30pm on Sunday with lights out at 4pm. Watch the Brazilian GP for £6.99 on NOW TV. No contract.