Okay, it’s still very early days, but Virgin Racing look the quickest- if not the most reliable- of the new teams entering F1 this season. Meanwhile Lotus are looking solid, but perhaps a fraction slower and HRT are just relieved that they got two cars through qualifying. As expected all three saw their drivers go out in Q1, but it’s an interesting battle between the three, and one that will have rather odd consequences come the end of the season.

The HRTs achieved a minor miracle just making it to qualifying, and so wont be too displeased at occupying the back row of the grid. Karun Chandhok will be pleased to have even turned a wheel, having missed all three practice sessions. The Indian’s time was just under 10 seconds shy of Vettel’s pole lap whilst Bruno Senna, who managed to get some running in practice, was 1.7 seconds quicker than his teammate. A tough day ahead for them tomorrow, but they’ll be treating it as a test session, between moving out of the way of the quicker cars who will inevitably be lapping them- a lot.

Senna will line-up 23rd in the HRT - credit: Alex Comerford

But while the HRT’s are out on their own pace-wise there’s a much closer battle going on between the other two new teams: Lotus and Virgin.

This one’s got an interesting subplot too, namely a little wager between Lotus team principal Tony Fernandes and Virgin Racing benefactor Sir Richard Branson, both of whom happen to be mega rich and own airlines. Whichever man’s team finishes lowest will have to work for a day as a stewardess- that means dressing up in full uniform, skirt, hat and all- on the other’s airline. Seems when you’re a billionaire simple cash bets aren’t enough. There needs to be some sort of cross-dressing humiliation involved.

Do Lotus have the speed to make this frightening image a reality? - credit: Air Asia Media

So who’s looking in better shape? Well, judging by the qualifying times Virgin have the better pace over one lap. Timo Glock pipped Jarno Trulli in qualifying, the Glockdog finishing just over a tenth of a second quicker than Trulli, with the second Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen a further half a second adrift. Lucas di Grassi was 22nd in the other Virgin, 2 tenths back from Kovalainen.

So it’s close between the new boys, with less than a second separating the four drivers. Virgin may claim qualifying as sign that they’re in the best shape. After all, Glock was the quickest man driving for a new team. Okay, both Lotuses were quicker than di Grassi, but Timo is Virgin’s number one driver; he’s the one they’re pinning their hopes on, and he’s the one who’s delivered.

It’s not all plain sailing for Virgin though. The team have been troubled by a number of technical issues this weekend, with di Grassi missing most of first practice and Glock most of the second session. The German then saw his wheel escape the car in third practice, bouncing off down the road before coming to a rest near a marshals’ post, fortunately not colliding with anything on its way. The reason for this? A problem with the wheel gun, we’re told. They’ll need to do better than that in future, and it would be something of a surprise if both of their cars make the chequered flag tomorrow.

Lotus meanwhile have looked solid. They’ve had the odd teething problem, naturally, but overall they’ve completed a fair bit more running than the Virgin cars. And with the two teams being so far off the pace the only way they’re going to score points in the foreseeable future is if they’re still running at the end of a race in which a lot of the established teams suffer problems. In this sense, Lotus may be looking better.

But like we’ve said, it’s very early days. It’s all about development at the moment and things will no doubt change as the teams learn more about their cars and the season unfolds. It’s first blood to Branson, but Tony Fernandes shouldn’t get himself fitted for a stewardess skirt or learn the in-flight menus just yet.