QUALIFYING AT PORTIMAO: WHAT WENT ON?
Tyres, team rivalries, and one hell of a track: Saturday's 5 biggest talking points
Qualifying at F1’s rookie circuit proved exciting, with a lack of data providing the thrilling unknowns that fans were hoping for. But with Max Verstappen trailing behind a Mercedes front-row lockout, not even the Algarve’s rollercoaster circuit could switch up the 2020 status quo. Here’s what went on in qualifying…
3 - 9 HAMILTON
Yeah, he did it again. He repeated the almost-comical pattern of being slower than Bottas for every single session until it matters. Valtteri Bottas timed every single timing sheet possible at Portugal this weekend, including Q1 and 2. Given this track is new to Formula 1, it finally seemed like Bottas could dominate a weekend in the way he desperately needs to for the championship. But the Finn deciding to come out for his second Q3 stint later than his teammate proved decisive: Bottas only prepared for 1 lap after his mid-Q3 pitstop, whereas Hamilton gave himself extra time and extra fuel and completed two, the second of which he snatched pole on. “Annoying” is the word Bottas used, but I imagine it’s closer to infuriating.
This must’ve been pretty heart-breaking for Bottas, who consistently performs to the top level, and yet is just slightly outperformed by the 6-time-world-champion when it matters. Hamilton’s ability to come out on top after a weekend of being second has led fans to believe that he intentionally leaves a few tenths on the table during practice, so Bottas can’t copy his data and match his times. However, Hamilton doesn’t seem to be phased at all by his teammate, so is unlikely to be playing such mind games - in the post-qualifying interview, he insisted this evolution in times was natural.
The biggest talking point of qualifying this weekend had to be the tyre choice. Given the lack of data about this track, Pirelli selected the hardest compounds available. This meant even the soft tyre had the potential to be used for 2 flying laps, which was partly the confusion that caused Stroll and Verstappen’s tangle in FP2. Typically, teams always use the soft tyre for their qualifying runs (as it’s the fastest), with the most confident sometimes risking a medium tyre run in Q2, so they can start the race on these. The soft tyre was used universally in Q1, but the track seemed to evolve backwards, becoming slower rather than faster, as the session progressed. Mercedes’ decision to complete Q2 didn’t seem unusual, but when Ferrari copied, it seemed rather…ambitious, especially considering Otmar Szafnauer had just been on Sky stating that the soft was 3/10ths to half a second quicker.
This is where the confusion began: although Ferrari’s struggles were doubtless in part down to the car, it seemed clear that Vettel and Leclerc’s times would be improved by switching to the soft tyre, although Leclerc’s success with this compound gives him a big advantage for the race. Verstappen, on the other hand, made Q3 on the softs, but complained that he had no grip at the end of the session. At the start of Q3, all teams initially set times on the softs, as is customary. However, to start their second set of laps, Mercedes opted to use the medium tyres. Even for a team so dominant, that would usually be cutting it close to secure pole. This is where the compound’s strength became clear; Bottas set three purple sectors on his flying lap to take provisional pole, proving that the medium tyre was faster. The benefits of the C2 were double for Hamilton, as the longevity of the tyre allowed him to do two flying laps, the second of which he secured pole.
After the race, the drivers claimed the unusual tyre performance was due to the new tarmac, blaming the slippery surface, as it was too slippery and difficult to warm up on. Lando Norris went so far as saying “I feel like I’m driving on wets current- oh no, I can’t say that….no, the tyres feel very good today”. Sure.
THE FERRARI SAGA CONTINUES
Leclerc’s qualifying performance last year dwarf’s the 22-year-old Monegasque’s record in 2020, but that doesn’t mean he’s been less impressive. The Ferrari driver secured 7 poles in 2019, but this was in a car that was faster than the Mercedes on several tracks. This weekend, he proved once again that he doesn’t need the best car to perform, as he showed in his Sauber days. Ferrari’s performance seemed to diminish in the middle of the season compared to the rest of the field; Leclerc secured 2 podiums in the first 5 races, but has failed to finish in the top 5 since Barcelona. We all know why Ferrari is so off the pace this year, but they’ve successfully implemented small upgrades, which seems to have brought Leclerc to the level they were at earlier in the season. He was P4 in both practice sessions on Friday and qualified in the same position, which is almost unfathomable for a team that had to fight to escape Q1 just last month.
If Charles Leclerc’s performances have overcome the weaknesses of the SF1000, then Sebastian Vettel has highlighted it. His entire season has been defined by the four-time world champion’s lacklustre season. After failing yet again to reach Q3 and finishing P15, he said his younger teammate was in a “different league”, stating that “the laps I am satisfied with are still too slow”.
It is worth noting, though, that Vettel was one of the drivers that attempted a Q2 run on medium tyres. This seems illogical, as his Q1 time on softs would’ve been fast enough to get him into Q3, and everyone between him and a Q3 appearance improved on softs in the second part of the session. However, given the track evolution and questionable tyre performance, mediums seemed to be the right strategy for other drivers.
Leclerc seemed to blame the almost 1-second gap between himself and his teammate on setup: “from what I understand he is probably not at ease as I am with the balance of the car. The rear is moving quite a bit”.
Either way, there’s likely no redemption day coming for Vettel this season.
GEORGE RUSSELL NEEDS A SEAT
Silly season controversies like the one surrounding Williams right now are nothing new, but qualifying today proved exactly why they’re so painful. The combination of Sergio Perez’s lack of a seat, Alfa Romeo retaining their drivers, and the financial backing of Latifi and Nikita Mazepin has left George Russell in the firing line for losing his seat. It’s easy to understand why the team might swap him for Sergio Perez, given his 10-year-career and multiple sponsors, but it must hurt Russell when he puts in such impressive performances and it doesn’t affect his chances.
The Williams driver maintained his perfect qualifying record against his teammate, beating Latifi by 5/10ths, and qualified P14 (above Vettel) in a car that has absolutely no business being above, well, the bottom of the timing sheet. It’s clear, though, that if Russell’s seat is under threat, no amount of performance will save him. Even if he’d scored a point in Mugello, we’d probably still be having the same conversations: the team is so off the pace that Russell’s stunning laps don’t really make a difference. If he were in a faster car, his ability would be easier to see - performances like this in, let’s say, a Racing Point might've already secured them P3 in the championship, so his seat would be completely safe.
I don’t blame Williams and Dorilton Capital for overlooking Russell’s unquestionable pace for a few extra million. I’m just annoyed that they have to.
RENAULT AREN’T DOING THEMSELVES ANY FAVOURS
Q2 was probably not good for blood pressure in the Renault garage, with Daniel Ricciardo losing it in T11. Both Renaults had an issue with this in qualifying, but the Aussie’s vision was obscured approaching the corner by his own teammate, meaning he lost the rear of his car. Unable to straighten it back up, Ricciardo ended up in the gravel, hitting the barrier. At first, he seemed to have escaped considerable damage, as he quickly returned to the pits, but the 15-minute Q3 session was just slightly too short for the Renault mechanics to replace the broken parts; Ricciardo failed to leave the garage for the final part of qualifying.
Speaking after the session, Riccardo told Sky that, quite painfully, his mechanics only needed an extra minute or so to finish the repairs. Given the strengths of the other cars in the field, though, it’s unlikely he would’ve made up many more places. It’s still disappointing for the Enstone team, though, seeing as they currently find themselves in possession of the much-coveted Constructors’ 3rd place. Renault has seemed on the back foot to Racing Point and McLaren for most of the season, but Daniel Ricciardo’s podium at the Nürburgring (along with Lance Stroll’s COVID-19 case and 2 no-point races for both Norris and Sainz) put them on top. If they want to maintain it, they can’t afford to qualify P10 and 11, and certainly can’t be sabotaging themselves.
A SPECIAL MENTION - DRAINAGE COVERS
Erm, yeah. How many other global sports could be brought to their knees thanks to sewerage, eh? Ever the glamourous sport, qualifying was delayed by 30 minutes just before the session was due to start, thanks to a loose drain cover at Turn 14. After Sebastian Vettel ran over it in FP3, marshals rushed to fill the hole with…cement, and checked there were no similar risks around the circuit. A rather irritating delay, but it was absolutely necessary. With the wind and even (shhh) rain predicted for the race, we’ll likely be glad the problem was remedied if someone ends up off the racing line.
What was the biggest surprise for you this Saturday? Drop a comment, and let me know on Twitter (@formulaAMELIA)!