Max Verstappen deprived Lewis Hamilton of pole position in Formula 1’s first sprint qualifying session, perfectly placing the Dutchman to stretch his championship advantage.
Hamilton charged to a drought-breaking ‘pole’ in the traditional qualifying hour, bumped to Friday evening to make space in the schedule for the sprint race, but the achievement controversially won’t be marked in the history books thanks to F1’s live experiment this weekend.
Keen to ensure the half-hour sprint is regarded not as a ‘race’ but simply a different version qualifying so as to not detract from the grand prix, pole position for this weekend has been awarded to Verstappen for winning the not-race rather than Hamilton for being quickest over a flying lap.
There is a logic to it — Verstappen, after all, will start on pole for the feature event, the Sunday race — but it’s a change that’s proved unpopular with the drivers and others, who see the decision as a devaluation of the challenge of a qualifying lap.
Less controversial is the weekend shake-up generally, with a competitive session on each of the three days providing an even spread of action. Teams have also had only one practice session to make set-up changes before parc ferme,a adding some jeopardy into the technical side of the event.
But we should withhold judgement on the schedule change until the end of the grand prix, because there’s reason to think the awkward manufacture of sprint qualifying might leave the race worse off.
With the field having effectively run the first stint of the race in sprint qualifying, albeit with only a third of a tank of fuel or less rather than the full starting load, we now have a glimpse of true race pace and tyre usage, taking away some of the mystery of Sunday and potentially spoiling the suspense and strategic play.
There’s also the spectre of the faster car now starting from pole, though the relative pace of the RB16B and W12 is up for debate. Although the argument stands that Hamilton threw away P1 with his sprint start, there is now less of a sting in the grand prix regardless.
But this of course is all academic. WIth the main event, the grand prix, still to come, anything could yet happen.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.891 kilometres
Lap record: 1:27.097 (Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 2020)
Track record: 1:24.303 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: very high
Tyre stress: very high
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 100 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 509.6 metres
Pit lane time loss: 17.3 seconds
Fuel consumption: low
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.6 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.6 seconds
Rule changes for this weekend mean everyone gets free starting tyre choice, but we’ve gleaned a couple of key strategic indicators from the sprint race already on how the strategies will likely unfold, the first being the propensity for blistering after only 10 laps, even on the mediums.
The cars were being pushed harder than they likely will be in a grand prix, but Sunday is also forecast to be hotter than Saturday, which in turn was warmer than Friday. With teams having to decide set-up based only on early afternoon FP1 on Friday, preventing the Pirelli rubber from chewing itself to expiry will be a key focus.
A one-stop race is of course more exposed to blister limitation, particularly with heavier fuel loads in the opening stint, but perversely it will also help prevent it by virtue of the tyre management required to make it to the end with a single stop. A second stop would invite more aggressive use of the rubber, which may not be feasible with the temperature hovering at around 30°C.
The soft tyre showed no notable performance advantage over the medium despite its purported benefits. Fernando Alonso used the red rubber’s grip advantage to good effect in a sizzling launch to get him ahead of the McLaren drivers on the first lap, but the medium tyre had little trouble keeping up thereafter.
Valtteri Bottas, on the other hand, couldn’t make up any places with the soft tyre and couldn’t keep up with Hamilton and Verstappen ahead on the nominally slower tyre.
The soft may make an appearance late in the race if, for example, an opportune safety car allows for a cheap conversion to a second stop, but it is unlikely to feature otherwise.
The medium will be the default starting tyre, as it was in the sprint. Its balance of grip and durability makes it an easy choice and offers a relatively broad stop window to keep strategy flexible.
In terms of the lead battle, sprint qualifying showed us the Mercedes is the faster car in a straight line, but Red Bull Racing’s higher downforce load allowed it to build enough of a gap through the high-speed corners to keep ahead in the key braking zones.
Hamilton will therefore find it hard to get by on track without a mistake from Verstappen, so the timing of his pit stop will be everything. It’s easy to see one driver or the other pulling an early stop for the undercut, turning the fight into one of tyre preservation to the flag.
Bottas, starting third, could be crucial here by serving as a block on Verstappen moving too early or gambling on a left-field strategy given Sergio Perez is out of the picture.
Perez will start from pit lane after a high-speed spin at Chappel dropped him to near the back of the pack and later prompted Red Bull Racing to retire the car from the sprint, but he’ll be one to watch. His car has been taken out of parc ferme to have fitted to it a slimmer rear wing, which the team lamented it didn’t fit on Friday, along with some other changes to aid him in an afternoon of overtaking. He also takes some new power unit components that would have attracted a grid penalty.
The only way is forward for him, especially now that he’ll be faster in a straight line, but starting on the hard tyre would allow him to overcut his way through the upper midfield, who may prove more difficult to pass regardless of the changes to his car, to earn him decent points.