Max Verstappen will start from a most unlikely pole position in Monza after Mercedes’s expectations for a strong Italian Grand Prix unravelled.
Even in 2021, Red Bull Racing’s strongest season since its title-winning years, this isn’t a circuit for the Milton Keynes team. The weekend’s single competitive practice session proved it, and Friday qualifying confirmed the deficit to Mercedes stood at 0.4 seconds.
And yet today Verstappen will line up alongside McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo at the front of the grid. Lando Norris follows, with Hamilton a lowly fourth.
The Dutchman couldn’t have expected the weekend to come to him so easily. First Mercedes opted to hand Valtteri Bottas a back-of-grid penalty for taking a new power unit, revealed shortly before he set the fastest time in qualifying. The rationale was the team was so fast that Hamilton wouldn’t have any problem taking victory without the Finn’s backup.
But then Hamilton executed a sloppy start in the Saturday sprint race, dropping from second to sixth, earning two places back only after Pierre Gasly crashed out of the 18-lap dash and when Bottas serves his penalty on the grand prix grid.
Worse for Mercedes is that Hamilton struggled to get past Norris in the sprint. True, the McLaren had softer tyres, but equally that should have made the younger Briton vulnerable later in the mini-race. It bodes poorly for his mission to limit the damage and worse still for Bottas’s recovery from the back.
Suddenly Red Bull Racing is preparing to dish out further pain in the championship on a day it was expecting to take a significant helping itself.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.793 kilometres
Lap record: 1:21.046 (Ruben Barricehllo, Ferrari, 2004)
Track record: 1:18.887 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: low
Tyre stress: very high
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Downforce: very low
Safety car probability: 40 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 417.6 metres
Pit lane time loss: 21 seconds
Fuel consumption: low
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.3 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.4 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
This is Formula 1’s second sprint experiment of the season, and while the merits of the race itself will be debated for the rest of the year, what’s for certain is that we got a small glimpse at the influences at play for Sunday’s strategy.
First, the soft tyre held up substantially better than expected, as shown by both McLaren drivers. Expected to last around 15 laps, it got to the end of the 18 handily, even accounting for the two-lap safety car interruption easing its way.
This has reinforced the chances of majority one-stop strategies, already likely on account of the long pit-stop time for pit lane running parallel to the long front straight.
What we don’t know, however, is who will choose to start on which compound, with free tyre choice coming with the sprint format. The soft and medium tyres will be the favoured compounds, and the medium is likely to be the favourite for the start for most, but expect the launch advantage from the softs to tempt some drivers.
FIRST-LAP CHAMPIONSHIP PERMUTATIONS
The easiness of the tyres despite the warm weather has potentially taken a weapon out of Hamilton’s armoury in his bid to rise onto the podium. Overtaking is difficult at Monza given the entire field tends to get caught in a slipstream train, meaning only a significant grip advantage from a tyre offset can make a difference.
The Briton might consider doing what the McLaren drivers did to him and using the soft tyre to get the better start, but he’ll then have to live with degrading rubber and risk falling into traffic with an early stop. Still, it might be his only shot at preventing Verstappen from making an early break from the field, with the alternative outcome being Hamilton getting caught among the slower upper midfield while the Dutchman breaks away.
If he can’t get up to second early, it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which Hamilton could get within undercut range, which would fulfil his own post-sprint prophecy of an easy Verstappen win, assuming Verstappen gets away into the lead off the line.
LONG STINT OR SHORT FOR THOSE OUT OF POSITION?
Starting on the soft compound may appeal more to Valtteri Bottas, who’ll start at the back of the grid. A racy first stint, gaining positions, before an early switch to the hard compound into the clear air at the back of the field could allow him to effectively undercut his way through the midfield and arrive in the points once the pit stops have been resolved.
This would prove particularly valuable if the midfield were engaged in tyre management early, doubly so if a slipstream train were to make passing difficult anyway. It would also win Mercedes some potentially valuable information on the soft tyre if it were to come into Hamilton’s late considerations.
Alternatively Bottas might choose the overcut by banking on the durability of the hard tyre. Realistically his Mercedes car should make easy work of the bottom half of the field, by which time the upper midfield, probably starting on the flexible medium compound, will be making their stops for the hard tyre. In clear air he could maximise his pace and then use a faster compound, either the soft or the medium, to generate the tyre offset he’d need to drill into the points in the final stint.
This strategy would need him to run a fair way deeper than the earlier-stopping cars he’d need to overtake late to give himself the largest possible tyre offset and therefore the best chance of passing, given the slipstream train will neutralise the new-grip advantage before long.