F1 Saturday: Hamilton's Q2 scare Verstappen's P2 push, & more
Saturday of the Russian GP weekend was not without drama, with countless storylines unfolding.
On a weekend during which he seeks to claim his record-equaling 91st F1 victory, Qualifying did not serve as one hour of tranquility for Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton. Granted, it seldom does, but nonetheless this Qualifying was cause for immense stress for the Briton, especially because of the track limits lap deletions.
Early on, his teammate Valtteri Bottas set the pace, but this was hardly a major setback in his fight for pole position number 96. What was, however, a hindrance to his efforts, was Sebastian Vettel's crash in the lap's first sector, as the German's stranded Ferrari brought out a red flag, which threatened Hamilton's chances at a Q3 appearance.
The primary source of the six-time champion's headache was the speed with which he then had to execute his final lap in order to make Q3, with only about two minutes remaining in the session. This, though, proved a surmountable challenge, as he would go on to make the top ten, before claiming pole in a dramatic end to Qualifying.
"I mean the whole session [Q2] was just not great," said Hamilton. "I went wide out of Turn 18, which was my fault, but the first time I had done that all weekend. Then I was like, “let me stay out and just get a banker lap in”, and they asked me to come in, which ultimately… I mean, hindsight is always a good thing to have, but I don’t know if it was the right call. But then we went back out and then the red flag came out and we all waited at the end of the pit lane.
"And I nearly spun at Turn 1 because the tyre temperatures were so low. I think I overtook one car going into the second to last corner or two cars I think it was, but then I got blocked by the Renault, and I was dead slow in the middle of the last corner about to start the lap and I could just hear Bonno saying “Go, go, go, go, go, go!” so I was just gunning to try to get across the line, so very, very fortunate. I don’t think that was just luck, I think it was just the right timing for us," summed up Hamilton.
From the outside, such a performance appeared superhuman, but Hamilton explained that his result came from a place of determination. "It was one of the hardest F1 qualifying sessions I can remember having being that everything was just so rushed and there was panic and there was just all sorts going on," he said. "And then obviously timing once you’re out there, when we went out for the second run, sorry in Q2, and then just having to calm myself down and find my centre, you know, calm my heart down and wanting to deliver in Q3. I was adamant. I had no choice. I had to deliver on those two laps.
"Valtteri had been doing great all weekend. Nothing new in that respect but I knew I needed to have a perfect lap, particularly on the first run to get the pole. Obviously pole position is not great here; it never has been. Still, going for pole is what we do. The first lap was really great. I thought it was going to be very difficult to improve on it, but I think I managed to just improve just a tiny bit I think on the second lap."
Talking about his qualifying performance, in stark contrast, the Finn detailed what was a 'straightforward' session, even though pace was lacking in Q3. After setting a competitive time, the Mercedes driver was outdone by Verstappen, and relegated to the second row. It was this lackluster performance that he attributed to oversteer and a mysterious lack of pace. "It was actually pretty straightforward from my side, so I think I was quite fortunate that all the happenings didn’t really affect me," said Bottas. "Q1, Q2 from my side was pretty good.
"Car was feeling good and the pace seemed to be there – unlike in Q3, which was a tricky one, so in the first run I didn’t feel my tyres were ready, so out of the last corner, starting the lap, I had a big snap so lost a couple of tenths on the run down to Turn 2. Turn 2, massive oversteer and tyres only came in towards the end of the lap. I was just waiting for the second run then and there was no mistakes as such, Turn 2, maybe there was a tiny lock-up, went a bit wide but, to be honest, I don’t really get it why I couldn’t match Lewis’ times in Q3.
"Just didn’t feel I was gaining much grip from previous sessions. I think even Q2 felt better, so a few question marks from me about what really happened – or maybe I was just playing games and wanted to start third," he summed up, as he banks on strategy off-set to gain on Hamilton in the F1 Russian GP, where he is usually strong.
The session of Red Bull's Verstappen was also not terribly dramatic, though the Dutchman's front row appearance was worthy of note seeing as the team's pairing of he and Alexander Albon seemed to struggle for pace in prior sessions. For this unexpected feat, the Dutchman was satisfied, as he also told of his progression throughout the session - another thing from which he derived a sense of fulfillment.
"It felt really good," said Verstappen. "Trying to find the right balance because I was actually struggling quite a bit throughout qualifying to really nail all the entry speeds, because I was oversteering a lot. So, step-by-step I think we were doing a better job. Q3, run one was a bit better but the second run, made a few changes and that just gave me a little bit more grip and, on this track, you really need a lot of entry grip, so yeah, that was very satisfying. It was a really nice lap to drive. It’s not pole position but for me, to be on the first row, I definitely didn’t expect that going into qualifying."
Verstappen completed his initial Q2 lap on the medium compound. However, it soon became apparent that his lap time was not quick enough to comfortably ensure a Q3 appearance, and so he went on on soft F1 tyres. At the end of his flying lap on said set of soft tyres, though, he was instructed by his team to abort. On an alternate strategy, the Dutchman is banking on the medium tyres to get the better of at least one Mercedes.
Albon was the last of the Q3 qualifiers, as - despite his best efforts - he was unable to improve to a great enough extent. This inability to make the necessary strides in Q3 baffled the Thai F1 driver, who explained that he and the team will be investigating this. “I’m not too sure what happened with Q3 so we need tonight to sit down and look at it with the engineers," he said.
"Q1 and Q2 felt ok and then everyone just seemed to make a jump in Q3 whereas we didn’t. It didn’t feel like we had much left in the car and my laps didn’t feel bad so there’s a bit of head scratching going on. You can tidy up some things here and there to find a couple of tenths maybe but obviously the gap is quite big to Verstappen, so it’s confusing and we have work to do.
"There was a bit of spinning and track limits going on which I think was because the wind changed quite a lot from FP3 to qualifying so some people were getting caught out. We’ll do our homework tonight so we have a better day. It’s a long run to Turn One and anything can happen so let’s see what we can do."
While Albon faltered, hot on the heels of the top three sat Sergio Perez of Racing Point. The Mexican delivered a lap good enough for P4, having been demoted from P3 by Verstappen's late efforts. He will line up alongside Renault's Daniel Ricciardo for Sunday's F1 race. He was understandably chuffed with his result, saying that he feels the most was extracted out of his car, even though he only has upgrade on the rear of his car for this weekend.
"I’m very happy with our performance," he said. "I think P4 was the maximum I could achieve because Max and the two Mercedes were very strong out there. We were able to qualify ahead of our nearest rivals, which is the main thing. It was a really tough session because the wind kept changing and we had the disruption of the red flag too. It’s a credit to the team that we were able to manage the sessions so well and extract the maximum from the car.
"A podium could be difficult to achieve here, but anything can happen at the start with the long run to Turn 2. If we make a strong start and manage the tyres well, I think we can fight for a good result." His teammate Lance Stroll, once again the sole carrier of the team's new upgrades, failed to make Q3 after a temperature issue sealed his fate. The Canadian confessed that he has not yet either managed to get to grips with Sochi.
To beat Renault's Daniel Ricciardo was an astonishing achievement for Perez, especially when one takes into account the pace the Australian repeatedly displayed throughout F1 practice. Ultimately, the Renault driver would come fifth in his own right, and this is a result he can be happy with, albeit not one that he feels is maximized. After showing pace enough for P2 in FP1, and P3 in FP2, the Aussie explains he suspected P3 or P4 might be possible, but it wasn't to be.
"Overall, I’m happy with fifth position," said Ricciardo. "I knew we weren’t in contention for pole position, but after the Q2 lap it felt like third or fourth was in reach. That lap in Q2 was perfect, so I knew it was going to be hard to improve on that. I did struggle a little more in Q3 and probably could have improved my time, but I am happy with where we ended up. I haven’t normally been strong at this circuit so to be quick all weekend is a positive."
With a quiet session, Ricciardo's teammate Esteban Ocon, meanwhile, came seventh. The Frenchman called his P7 a strong result, as he looks forward to fighting at the forefront of the midfield, as their pace suggests that they can fight Red Bull, Racing Point and McLaren. One team who looked better in practice but lost a bit in qualifying was Ferrari.
Vettel's disruptive crash, while harmful to others, was unequivocally most harmful to the German himself, whose session ended because of it. It also hindered teammate Charles Leclerc as the subsequent traffic disrupted his supposed Q3 chance. Meanwhile, the incident, as explained by the 33-year-old, was a result of pushing beyond the car's tolerance.
"When I crashed I was trying to improve my time," said Vettel. "I hadn’t had a good first sector so I was pushing. It seems that I was going too quickly and so I lost the car. It had already happened in turn 2 and then it happened again in turn 4. I tried to avoid the impact, but I couldn’t catch it. Compared to the morning session, the track was quite different during qualifying and I struggled a bit more. I’m sorry to have made extra work for the team, but at least I think the car can be fixed."
Despite having kept his car intact, Leclerc was unable to progress into Q3, as he ended his day in eleventh - short of where he anticipated. The Monegasque stated that miscommunication with the pit wall saw him push excessively hard on his out lap, the result of which was unfavorable proximity to AlphaTauri's Daniil Kvyat.
One man largely unaffected by the crash of Vettel was his to-be Ferrari F1 replacement Carlos Sainz of McLaren. The Spaniard, having set a good banker lap at the start of Q2, was comfortable enough to not set another lap, and rightly so. Come Q3, his pace was enough to qualify P6. This was a result he was happy with, especially after a drastic change in wind direction.
"I’m very happy with P6 after a challenging session for us," said Sainz. "We were encouraged after our FP3 pace but, as soon as qualifying started, we saw that the wind conditions and track temperature had changed, which compromised our car balance. Nonetheless, I managed to put in good laps from the first run in Q1, saving a new set for Q3, and putting together all sectors on my last attempt to grab P6. It’s a good starting position for the race so now we need to make sure we finish the job.
"In fact, I actually let Lewis pass in the Q2 out lap. Same for some other drivers because I knew they were a bit more nervous than me. I had a very good banker lap in the Q2 run. I wanted to practice Turn 2 because it is very tricky and I didn't need to take the chequered flag for that. It was okay," he said, with his teammate Lando Norris adding that his qualifying was a messy one, in spite of good pace.
[This story was written by me for FormulaRapida and edited by Darshan Chokhani]