Valtteri Bottas pinched pole from home-crowd favourite Lewis Hamilton by just 0.006 seconds in a tense qualifying battle at the British Grand Prix, but Mercedes didn’t have things all its own way, with Charles Leclerc less than a tenth off pole in his surprisingly quick Ferrari.
That Leclerc could push the Silver Arrows was a surprise for the team as much as it was for the sport in general — Ferrari had spent the fortnight since the Austrian Grand Prix insisting the Silverstone Circuit wouldn’t suit its car and that regular Mercedes-dominated service would be due to resume.
But in reality the historic track — renewed for another five seasons this year — ought to suit the SF90. The high latent downforce of a 2019 F1 car means some of the circuit’s most challenging high-speed corners are effectively straights, swinging the pendulum of performance towards Ferrari’s power unit. The lack of slow-speed corners also neutralises Mercedes’s season-long advantage to some extent.
None of that was enough to completely overcome Mercedes, however, and unfortunately for Ferrari, practice suggested its long-run pace may not redeem its fractionally diminished single-lap performance on Sunday — though there are some significant caveats to be had in any predictions.
|2019 BRITISH GRAND PRIX PROVISIONAL GRID|
Distance: 5.891 kilometres
Lap record: 1:30.621 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2017)
Tyre stress: Very high
Lateral load: Very high
Asphalt grip: High
Asphalt abrasion: Medium
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane time loss: 20 seconds
Fuel loss: 0.4 seconds per 10 kilograms
Estimated tyre delta: C1–0.7 seconds–C2–0.7 to 0.8 seconds–C3
Tyre wear is the principal factor in deciding race strategy at this year’s British Grand Prix, with the new Silverstone Circuit surface grippy enough to stave off graining and ambient temperatures cool enough not to create concerns about overheating.
Wear is a neutral erosion of the tread on the tyre — it can’t be recovered, and small variations in pace aren’t enough to ‘manage’ the compound for any extended number of laps beyond their life expectancy.
|C3 (5 laps)|
|Red Bull Racing||1:32.331|
|*Over three laps|
As such, a two-stop race ought to be a certainty, with the soft tyre (C3) unlikely to last more than 15 laps and the medium tyre (C2) no more than 20 laps, at least according to Friday data — more on that below.
The hard tyre (C1) will, as usual, form the spine of most strategies, but no team did any serious race simulation leaving us to divine from the long runs on the soft and medium compounds how the field may fare.
In this regard the picture looks stark, with Mercedes appearing to hold a substantial long-run pace advantage on both the soft and the medium compounds. This, however, comes with a number of caveats.
The first is that the Silverstone Circuit is evolving rapidly owing to its recent resurfacing — indeed this is the first weekend of racing on the new tarmac. The picture generated by Friday running therefore won’t be entirely representative of what the track will likely offer by Sunday, notwithstanding the chance of rain on Saturday night.
Further to that, the track has in some sections been reprofiled to assist with drainage. Corner cambering has changed in some parts, and this caused some teams to experience particularly high wear as their cars slid away from the apex. Ferrari, for example, struggled particularly badly in this regard, with the soft tyre worn down to the canvas over Charles Leclerc’s race simulation.
|C2 (6 laps)|
|Red Bull Racing||1:31.670|
|*Over four laps|
This severe wear, however, can be rectified fairly easily with some set-up changes, and the fact Ferrari was so close in qualifying on Saturday after struggling to keep its tyres in good condition over a single lap on Friday suggests the Italian team has cured the worst of this problem. Red Bull Racing had also closed to within less than 0.2 seconds in qualifying.
Worse still for those keen to generate a race projection is that part of Saturday morning practice was lost to a sprinkling of rain, deterring teams from setting many laps, meaning there’s no available data to use to create a more accurate probably picture for the race.
So it’s a step into the unknown for the race. Don’t be surprised if the first part of the race is slow — literally and figuratively — as the drivers attempt to extend their first stints to make a one-stop work, especially those starting on mediums and certainly hards.
A battle may break out if someone — perhaps Sebastian Vettel given his lowly P6 — stops early and triggers a two-stop race. But conservatism is the default position.
Of particular interest will be starting tyre choices. Mercedes (Bottas P1, Hamilton P2) and Red Bull Racing (Max Verstappen P4, Pierre Gasly P5) will start on the medium tyre, while Ferrari (Leclerc P3, Vettel P6) will start on the soft.
Each camp is confident in their respective decisions, but given both tyres have a similar life expectancy, the pace advantage of the soft should be more valuable than the durability of the medium, and if it’s to be a two-stop race, Pirelli rates it as the optimum starting tyre.
Is it enough to make Mercedes vulnerable to Leclerc or Red Bull Racing to Vettel? We’ll find out on Sunday.