Carlos Sainz sixth place was one of the many surprises of the arduous qualifying session in Hungary, but the Toro Rosso driver is at a loss to explain how it happened.
The Spaniard said his expectations for qualifying were low after he set a time 2.1 seconds off Nico Rosberg’s leading pace in Saturday morning practice, but his STR11 came unexpectedly and inexplicably alive just two hours later.
“It was definitely a lot better than we expected, because after FP3 we looked to be the last team of the midfield, even behind the Renault,” said Sainz. “We were absolutely nowhere.”
The team made no changes to the car between the end of free practice and the beginning of qualifying, and the only difference between FP3 and the first segment of qualifying was the climatic conditions.
Heavy rain ponded the Hungaroring for almost an hour before qualifying was able to begin 20 minutes late, and the session was frequently interrupted by red flags, one of which was for another band of heavy rain.
Air and track temperatures plummeted compared to the hot morning session, but Sainz wasn’t convinced weather was the only factor in improving his FP3 time by 1.2 seconds
“It could be one of the factors,” he said. I cannot understand how just a bit of a track temperature drop can make us go one second and a half faster.
“I jumped in the car, and even though the track was damp I made the same lap time as I did in FP3! That shows the massive step we took.
“I was afraid that as the track was drying out we were going to fall back again to the normal dry conditions, but still we managed to keep a really good pace.
“Suddenly it clicked and we’re P6 now.
“I really cannot explain it, because I think we don’t even know yet how it happened.”
Though reasons for the performance of the car eluded him, Sainz paid credit to his team, which he says reacted precisely to the demands of rapidly changing conditions.
“What I know is that quali was handled very well. We moved to the right tyre at the right time, we used the tyre that we had to use at the right time, and we did the lap time when it counted and when the track was at its best.
“All this put together makes a very, very good result. I cannot be more pleased than what I am.”
Sainz’s unpredictable pace in the car makes forecasting race performance difficult, but the Spaniard isn’t getting his hopes up for an assault on the leading cars.
Starting ahead of him will be both Mercedes drivers, both Red Bull Racing drivers, and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, all of which easily outpace Toro Rosso’s STR11, which is powered by a year-old engine.
Starting behind Sainz are both McLarens, Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India, and Williams’s Valtteri Bottas, which are in the junior Red Bull team’s performance ballpark.
“If I have the FP3 car, for sure I will be looking in my mirrors the whole race!” he said.
“Obviously the cars in front are one second and a half per lap quicker, so even if I can do a good start, it will be impossible to hold onto it.
“If we finally manage more or less something in between, with how tricky it is to overtake here and because our race pace on Friday wasn’t looking that bad, then we can hold onto [sixth].”