Lewis Hamilton holds all the cards in Formula 1’s first-ever Qatar Grand Prix, and with car pace and strategy on his side, he’s well placed to half his championship deficit to Max Verstappen.
The Briton set a blistering pace to take pole from the Dutchman. His advantage, 0.455 seconds, is the largest pole margin in a dry qualifying session this season, underlining how well Mercedes has set up its car for the new demands of the Losail International Circuit.
Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, has struggled to find its groove. The track is so fast that it’s proved to be more front limited than rear limited, which has pushed the balance of performance away from the RB16B. It showed not only in the pole margin but also in Sergio Perez’s 11th place. An altered run plan for tyre warm-up left him unable to escape Q2, but that he was on the bubble at all spoke to the car’s difficulties around this track.
So Hamilton has the car pace, but Valtteri Bottas might be the ace up his sleeve. Bottas had headed Hamilton throughout practice and so was disappointed to qualify a relatively distant third, but he’s nonetheless in the mix, particularly given his Friday long-run data was strong.
With overtaking expected to be difficult, any position changes will need to take place at the start or through the pit lane, meaning Bottas will play the crucial rear-gunner role for his teammate to ensure Hamilton’s smooth run to the flag.
But that’s all before we learn whether Verstappen is penalised for completing his final Q3 lap with double waved yellow flags in the final sector for Pierre Gasly’s crashed AlphaTauri. For reasons known only to the stewards, the decision won’t be made until Sunday afternoon. If found guilty, a grid drop of up to five places is likely.
Bottas and Charles Leclerc are also under investigation, albeit for the lesser offence of ignoring single waved yellows.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.380 kilometres
Lap record: NA
Track record: 1:20.827 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2021)
Lateral load: very high
Tyre stress: very high
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: high
Safety car probability: NA
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 420 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: high
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.7 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
The Losail International Circuit is principally a motorcycle circuit and is a blank canvas for Formula 1. There’s no historical data for teams to build on this weekend in forming their race strategy, and though that can prompt some teams to get creative with their strategies, it more often than not generates conservatism as strategists try to ensure their drivers make it to the end without any nasty surprises.
Already we’ve seen the results of the weekend to date diverge from expectation, with the front tyres being the limiting factor. This circuit is so fast and busy — it’s a favourite among the drivers — that getting the front rubber to comply, and physical wear of the front left will dictate stint length.
It’s part of the reason Mercedes has ended up so rapid compared to Red Bull Racing here this weekend. The black cars struggle when the challenge is to keep the rears from overheating, whereas the Bulls have difficulty in the inverse conditions — it’s much more a Mercedes track than expected.
Mercedes is also still ahead in the stakes for straight-line speed, with a handy advantage on the power over Red Bull Racing despite Christian Horner’s claims that more stringent FIA tests have forced the constructors championship leaders to modify its rear wing. Fundamentally the Mercedes is just quicker everywhere, which will make Hamilton a difficult prospect to beat in the race.
Pirelli forecasts two stops in this race given the level of tyre wear seen during practice, so assuming Verstappen is behind Hamilton after the first lap, he will have two routes to victory available to him: an aggressive undercut or a one-stop strategy.
Early changes in both pit stop windows will get Verstappen track position over Hamilton, albeit only if he’s close enough to the lead to prevent an easy cover. There’s nothing in Friday practice data to suggest that Mercedes will experience worse tyre wear than Verstappen, so it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which Verstappen can get ahead of Hamilton with one-lap-older tyres near the end of the race.
Inversely, Mercedes could deploy Bottas in the aggressive undercut role to force the issue. While we don’t yet know whether Verstappen will have the pace to race Hamilton, it’s crucial he at least secures second, so an early stop by the Finn could force the Dutchman into a battle for runner-up, leaving Hamilton to run his own race.
The medium compound will form the strategic spine, and a medium–hard–medium is the most likely strategy to the end, although medium–hard–soft isn’t out of the question in cooler late-race conditions.
Alternatively Verstappen could hold his nerve and try stopping just once. If both Mercedes cars run two-stop strategies, he would inherit the lead and would then have to rely on the forecast difficulty overtaking to grind out a defensive victory. And if Hamilton stays out and the wear proves as severe as Pirelli predicts, it at least increases the chance of the leading Mercedes car suffering a fluke tyre problem.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the one-stop strategy attempted despite Pirelli’s warnings. The tye manufacturer is often conservative in predicting how set-up gains at new tracks only to find the drivers can conserve much more effectively in the grand prix than Friday practice suggested.
But there’s no getting around Mercedes’s two-on-one advantage. Even if Verstappen does land an early punch strategically, assuming both black cars are in the fight there’ll always be an opportunity for Mercedes to hit back. Even losing the lead off the line with Hamilton and Bottas second and third wouldn’t be unrecoverable given Perez is starting 11th and unlikely to play a role in the contest.
Though the medium will be the favourite starting compound for the flexibility it offers with an uncertain outlook, there isn’t a consensus that the soft isn’t worth a gamble given the track has been relatively cool after sunset and not as abrasive as expected.
A soft–medium–medium strategy will be the default route for those starting on softs, particularly if the red rubber stands up longer in the opening stint of the race. It could convince teams to avoid the hard tyre altogether given it looked substantially slower in practice after dark.
For those starting out of position — namely, Sergio Perez in 11th, Charles Leclerc in 13th (potentially pit lane pending further chassis work) and Daniel Ricciardo in 14th — the predicted importance of track position could see them contemplate a one-stop strategy. An opening stint on mediums will give them a chance to assess the likelihood of pulling it off; if they discount it, finding clean air to drop into after their first stops rather than playing the undercut game with the midfield will be crucial to maximising their pace.