Explained: Race pace vs Qualifying pace
A fairly simple guide of how race fuel loads are affecting the pace and why refuelling was the ultimate mind game.
I would usually stray away from motorsport as it's a polarising topic, but this F1 season had shown us a very stark contrast between qualification and racing pace in some teams. So why is that and how important is for the teams to develop their cars in order to keep that difference to a minimum? Is that possible at all? Let's find out!
Quali pace in a nutshell
When the qualification starts, the cars are fast and getting faster literally by the minute. The main reasons being fuel, tyres and rubber on the racing line. The cars are lighter, carrying just enough fuel for a set number of laps plus a tiny bit of extra for safety, because nobody wants to be disqualified for lighter-than-regulations car. The tyres are getting regularly changed with brand new sets for optimal grip and the rubber that's being laid on the track gets the racing line to a more grippier state after every lap. Basically - the F1 cars are at their optimal condition for one-lap blistering time. To transition as much of that pace to racing as possible, we have to look at those factors in Sunday conditions. Every single car is on the track at the same time, so plenty of fresh rubber is being laid onto the racing line lap after lap (and a lot of pesky marbles off that line). The cars are starting the Sunday race on their Q2 tyres, so there are no brand new sets at the beginning of the race for the front runners in the TOP 10. The others are free to choose. But the fuel load makes an incredible impact of the lap times and here's why:
Credit: Mercedes AMG F1
All about weight
740 kg is the weight of a modern day F1 car, without driver and fuel. The maximum allowed fuel weight is 110 kg. That's roughly 12% of the whole weight of the car before the start of a race, including the driver! Now this may not sound like much, but you have to remember how weight-sensitive the car's balance can be and also how that is impacting the tyres ability to grip in the corners. That's 12% extra load on all four corners without taking any aerodynamic load into the equation! And this year's thicker tyre sidewalls are making that substantial weight percentage even more difficult to handle by the teams. The benefits of that extra weight to switch the tyres faster in their optimal temperature range are nearly gone nowadays and the hard compounds are becoming undesirable in strategies again, especially if you're chasing an undercut. As a general rule, for every 10 kilos of fuel onboard, an F1 car loses roughly 0.3 seconds in lap time. But that is a very generalised assumption and it tells only part of the story.
Credit: F1 Media Library
The speed of an F1 car and the confidence of the driver all rely in a delicate balance that sets the behaviour under braking and in the corners. If the driver finds the optimal balance for his preferences, he's gonna be confident to push the car near or even just beyond the limits of grip, setting a good pace in both qualifying and racing. But 12% more weight just behind the seat can impact that balance significantly. Case in point - Williams. While their Saturdays looks impressive, compared to their last year performances, on a Sunday George Russell loses his hard-earned position left, right and centre from the start. The race pace with a car full of fuel is just plain bad for the Williams team, because the balance of their car gets completely ruined. And the biggest hint for that shift is when you see the Williams pace towards the end of the race, when most of that fuel is gone and Russell is starting to catch up the midfield. Now all cars are getting faster when they burn through that fuel, but the team from Grove makes a huge impression. It's just jarring! It's the same story for McLaren and Ferrari, albeit to a significantly lesser extent. They are able to get close to Mercedes and RedBull in qualifying and yet they are getting completely dropped by both in the first stints of the race.
Credit: F1 Media Library
Making an unexpected extra stop seems to be all the rage these days with Mercedes pulling another fast one on RedBull. But stops to chase the fastest lap towards the end are another story. I personally find those excessive stops for tyre changes in search for the coveted extra point a bit annoying. Sure, something can always go wrong in the pits and make up for a thrilling end, but I find them pointless nevertheless.
Recently I have been witnessing a lot of talks about refuelling, including within our own driving community. And some valid points have been made towards why it was good to get it back. Today's strategy is revolving solely around tyres and has become more or less predictable, even with the stunt that Mercedes pulled in Spain to get the win. A return to the refuelling, no matter how expensive or dangerous it was in the past will bring back the element of surprise in full force. The strategies about both qualifying and racing would become unpredictable, way more flexible and teams like Williams will have a better fighting chance in the race towards the points by going for shorter stints with fresher tyres and less fuel onboard in a bid to deliver consistent race pace. Also teams like Alpine and Alfa Romeo could choose to sacrifice their qualifying and grid position with more starting fuel in order to do longer stints and punch firmly in the midfield pack, instead of chasing the last available points at the end of the race.
There are plenty of arguments against refuelling as well, but I would focus only the positives for us - the spectators, because such a step can make for an even better racing spectacle. The debate is open not just here, but in the paddocks and the FIA, although such decision is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon.