If qualifying at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix were further evidence of the fight between Mercedes and Red Bull Racing being posied on a knife edge, seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton proved that he could be the difference between success and failure.
The Briton snatched pole by only 0.035 seconds from Sergio Perez with a faultless first effort in Q3. There’s arguably no such thing as a perfect lap in Formula 1, but that Hamilton set an almost identical albeit marginally slower time the second time around suggested he got the maximum from his machine around the demanding Imola track.
Both Perez and Max Verstappen therefore had their chances to relieve the lead Mercedes of provisional pole, but though both improved — Perez enormously — on their own first laps, both also made crucial errors that left them agonisingly close but ultimately unrewarded.
Those tiny differences are set to be decisive throughout the year in what is sure to be a ferocious battle between the two premier teams of the last decade, but it will be true also of the battle for midfield honours, which is not only more closely contested in 2021 but also fought nearer to the front.
Lando Norris so nearly claimed third on the grid for McLaren before his sensational final lap was deleted for track limits, dropping him to seventh. It was still enough to keep ahead of Valtteri Bottas, who struggled to generate tyre temperature on both of his Q3 runs without the time for multiple laps on each tyre set.
Those fine margins also resulted in some massive intrateam splits, with Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Carlos Sainz all forced to watch their teammates vie for pole from the sidelines after Q2 elimination.
At a circuit around which overtaking is notoriously difficult — just six passes were executed here last year — those small performance differences could proved exponentially more costly on race day.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
|10||Lance STROLL||No time|
|20||Yuki TSUNODA||No time|
Distance: 4.909 kilometres
Lap record: 1:15.484 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Track record: 1:13.609 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 100 per cent (after one race)
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 529 metres
Pit lane time loss: 24 seconds
Fuel consumption: 1.7 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.5 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
With overtaking as difficult as it is in Imola, positions gained and lost at the start will be crucial in deciding the results at the flag.
The battle of the front will be fought in an unusually reversed context, with Red Bull Racing holding a strategic advantage over Mercedes for a chance. Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen will hope there’s strength in numbers in their battle against pole-getter Lewis Hamilton, whose teammate, Valtteri Bottas, will start eighth and mired in the pacy midfield.
Perez will also start on the soft tyre, whereas both Hamilton and Verstappen will start on the medium. The decision was made to keep the Mexican on the quicker tyre in Q2 to better prepare him for the pole shootout, and his first front-row start is evidence of the theory.
It’s an interesting wrinkle. The soft is estimated to be 0.7 seconds quicker than the medium, which should translate to a handy grip advantage off the line and down to the first braking zone. If he were to snatch the lead, it would give him the best chance of victory by allowing him to control the pace to suit his less durable tyres, which will be key to defending against any undercut attempt.
The undercut is not especially powerful here owing to the relatively short lap and the difficulty warming up the hard tyre, the default race compound, in the chilly spring conditions. The hard is also half a second slower than the medium and all of 1.2 seconds slower than the soft. If Perez has enough rubber in reserve, avoiding the Hamilton undercut trap should be straightforward.
From there Verstappen could come into play. The Dutchman, shod with medium tyres, would then be free to extend his first stint, much as Hamilton himself did here last year to jump from third to first after the first stops.
How that might play out inside Red Bull Racing if Perez keeps ahead of Hamilton but the Dutchman jumps both anyway would be fascinating.
This will also take place against a backdrop of the likelihood of rain, rated as 60 per cent during the race. A wet start would obviously render these strategy permutations as irrelevant, but rain predicted for later in the race would tempt all drivers to amange the pace and try to stop only once from slicks to wets.
A team or driver willing to take the race on in this case and stick with dry tyres in a gamble the rain won’t arrive could potentially win big.
Considering the midfield, long-run analysis from Friday suggests the starting order of Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly and the McLaren teammates reflects the expected race pace difference at this circuit. If correct, that would put Carlos Sainz (P11) and Fernando Alonso (P16) out of position but with free tyre choice. All midfielders in the top 10 will start on the soft tyre, giving those in the bottom half of the grid a chance to start on the preferred medium compound and run long. Clean air gained after the soft-runners stop could then bring them back into points contention.
Finally, Yuki Tsunoda will start from last as the most out-of-place driver on the grid. The Japanese rookie was disappointing in Bahrain qualifying before delivering one of that race’s most eye-catching performances. Overtaking is more difficult here, but his decisiveness on the brakes and assertiveness behind the wheel will stand him good stead for big gains.