Max Verstappen took a surprisingly dominant pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix, and though he’s in the box seat to recover his lost victory from 2018, forecasting race performance won’t be easy at Interlagos.
The 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix weekend seems likely to deliver only questions when the sport was hoping for some concrete answers, in particular on Ferrari’s power unit, which Verstappen believes derives some of its horsepower from cheating.
The FIA had clamped down on tricky business with the fuel flow meter in Austin, where the Italian team was unusually slow in a straight line — a correlation according to some — and subsequent technical directives issues this weekend only added to the speculation.
|Speed trap (Qualifying)|
|Toro Rosso||330.4 kph|
|Red Bull Racing||330.2 kph|
|Alfa Romeo||330.0 kph|
|Racing Point||329.6 kph|
Ferrari moved to silence any doubters during practice, blitzing the field through the power-sensitive third sector by anywhere between 0.6 and 0.8 seconds, depending on who you ask, but then that advantage quietly disappeared come qualifying, during which the front three teams were closely matched in the power stakes. Only 0.023 seconds separated the three teams in the final sector, albeit with Ferrari the leader.
So what’s behind the unpredictability at the front?
The first thing to bear in mind is Sao Paulo’s high-altitude setting, While not as extreme as Mexico City, Interlagos is around 760 metres above sea level. Engine performance in the thinner air is therefore disproportionately dependent on the turbo compressor. The larger, more powerful the compressor, the more engine power is retained. Honda is understood to have a larger compressor than its rivals, explaining why Red Bull Racing was able to vault past Ferrari.
Further complicating readings is that Ferrari surely made set-up changes overnight Friday in response to its relatively poor long-run simulations. The team likely added more wing at the expense of top speed to ensure tyre longevity for the race, particularly given Charles Leclerc was destined to take a 10-place grid penalty for an engine change after his FP3 failure at the US Grand Prix, not to mention the expected warmer Sunday weather.
While that means the results of qualifying are explainable, it offers few concrete answers as to the speculated goings-on in the power unit stakes at this latter part of the season. It also makes forecasting the result based on this interesting grid difficult.
|2019 BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX GRID|
|20||Carlos Sainz||No time|
Distance: 4.309 kilometres
Lap record: 1:10.540 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2018)
Tyre stress: medium
Lateral load: high
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 40 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 392.5 metres
Pit lane time loss: 17.662 seconds
Fuel use: 1.46 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: hard–1.0 second–medium–0.5 seconds–soft
Friday was cool and grey at Interlagos, with almost all of first practice run in wet weather and second practice mostly damp but dry enough for slicks. Given Sunday’s forecast, which is for a sunny afternoon of 23°C, long-run simulations on Friday are unlikely to prove accurate to model the race.
Mercedes was quickest on Friday with the soft tyre, but the times at the front were tight, especially between Red Bull Racing and Ferrari in second and third respectively.
What seemed clear was that Ferrari, with Vettel in the cockpit for its soft-tyre run, was experiencing more performance drop-off towards the end of his simulation. Given the discrepancies between his Friday and Saturday performances, it’s fair to assume this has been a key area of work between practice and qualifying, and the red cars should be expected to perform more strongly in the race than Friday suggested.
|Soft (C3), 7 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:13.538|
|Alfa Romeo (5 laps)||1:14.118|
|Williams (6 laps)||1:15.553|
But even this may not be enough if the race were to boil down to a fight between Vettel and Verstappen given the importance of the first-turn braking zone to overtaking. With the Honda engine at least on par with its rivals — admittedly on the evidence of qualifying only — Vettel may not be able to drag Verstappen up the hill to position himself for a move as he otherwise might have been expected to do.
However, Hamilton is sure to insert himself into this fight with the car that looked most impressive over a race simulation, and given that superior tyre wear, Pirelli’s offset one-stop strategy could be key to him jumping past the front two cars.
Already in Mexico City and to a lesser extent Austin Hamilton demonstrated that he’s capable of taking tyres well beyond their expected shelf life with reasonable performance, winning the former race and coming second in the latter.
With the hard tyre being 1.5 seconds slower than the soft, if he can keep the red-marked compound sweet in the first stint, an aggressive finish on the medium rather than the hard could be his ticket to the front. It will require careful judgement, however, in the warmer weather.
A fascinating final note will be Charles Leclerc, who starts 14th with an engine penalty but on the medium tyre, having easily qualified for the top-10 shootout with the yellow compound.
Pirelli doesn’t rate its one-stop medium-hard strategy, but starting on the medium with the expectation of going longer than to lap 24 — which is less life than Pirelli predicts for the soft — leaves the door open for Leclerc to gauge the performance of the soft tyre on his frontrunning rivals for a potential final-stint dash once he’s cleared the midfield.
Leclerc may also find himself ideally placed to capitalise on higher than expected degradation if the weather is substantially warmer, allowing him to better judge what could become a two-stop race.