- Credit: Racing Point

F1 Saturday: Leclerc brings the thunder, strategy is in full swing, and more

On Saturday of the Portugese GP weekend, strategy defined qualifying, as did performances from Perez, Leclerc, and others.

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It was as typical of a result as such an atypical Qualifying could have delivered, with Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton securing his 97th F1 pole in Portuguese GP after he snatched it from his on-form teammate Valtteri Bottas in the waning seconds of the session.

Hamilton was happy to have achieved this feat, it being one that required a lot of him given the competitiveness of his teammate, whose command over the session was seldom challenged prior to that point. "It’s always a fight but I would say this F1 track combined with… the smoothness of the track, the difficulty that we have with these tyres and the battle that I’m having with Valtteri is making it harder and harder for me each weekend.

"He’s been quickest all weekend this weekend, all through F1 practice and even into some of this session. I didn’t know whether or not I was going to get a lap that would be able to compete with his – I was always off a tenth or half a tenth or whatever it is – but the decision I took at the end was what created the opportunity," Hamilton said, before continuing on about the strategic deviance between himself and Bottas.

The Brit chose the medium tyre, as well as a strategy that permitted him to do multiple laps before the session's end. His F1 teammate chose the same tyre, his strategy only differing in that he opted to do one full-attack flying lap. "We were both given the opportunity to choose between the soft and the medium tyre, which is kind of counter-intuitive, in terms of going to the medium, because usually we just stay on the soft throughout Q3," said Hamilton.

"But the idea of having an extra lap, an extra chance, an extra stab at getting pole looked good to me so I chose to go that extra lap and I think Valtteri chose the one, but he still did a great job and it was very, very tough and I had to dig very deep. Luckily I think I got the last sector just about right but still it was so close."

Hamilton denied that the track became grippier to any degree between the session's start and its end, the six-time champion also projecting that the slick track surface might contribute to troubles with tyres come Sunday. "I think it’s going to be a very tricky race, particularly when you’ve got the harder tyre," said Hamilton. It doesn’t really work for several laps. It’s going to be interesting at the beginning.

"Obviously we lose a little bit of performance to Max and the guys behind on the Softs. Really don’t know what to expect. It’s supposed to rain. That means it’s going to be the hardest day for us all, if it does. Windy and wet, that would really be ice if we have that. I just think we have to prepare for all scenarios.

"If it is dry, restarts will be really difficult with the tyres, with the speed that the Safety Car goes, which I won’t comment too much on. Yeah, it’s going to be a tough race, that’s for sure, since we’ve never been here as well," Hamilton added. For Bottas, it was a frustrating affair, particularly as he had led all of the F1 sessions preceding Q3, and he admitted as much at the day's end.

"I felt like the Medium was actually a tiny bit better than the Soft tyre over the whole timed lap, so went for the Medium and then it was about doing one or two timed. Obviously the benefit going of going for one, you can fuel for just one timed; if you do two laps you have to fuel for two laps, which is more weight, so based on what I felt in Q2 – and it was a good feeling with the tyres on a single lap – I went for it again in Q3.

"Ultimately it was the wrong decision but I think maybe the track temp – I don’t know – dropped slightly or I just couldn’t get the tyres to feel quite the same as they felt in Q2. At the end of that lap I was just hoping I could have one more lap but obviously didn’t have the fuel. Wrong call from my side and it is annoying for sure but Lewis did a good job at the end," said Bottas, who also believed, like Hamilton, that low grip would present a challenge for the upcoming F1 race.

Max Verstappen of Red Bull similarly looked well in-contention, but his pace became less convincing of this fact as the session dragged on. He ultimately came third, having used the soft tyres in Q3.  The Dutchman, though happy with his performance, was left baffled by wildly inconsistent grip levels. "For us it was very straightforward," he began to explain.

"We just committed to Softs for the whole of qualifying. But I think already the whole weekend has been really tricky with getting the tyres to work and besides that I think it’s not only tyres but also the tarmac is also very slippery. Just one line you can take but overall still good, of course, to be third but confusing throughout qualifying.

"[I] did my fastest lap time in Q1 and after that I couldn’t replicate it just because I didn’t have the same grip. Of course, you know the time runs down in Q2 and Q3, you have even less time to do your laps and it just seemed like it was a bit more difficult for us to get the tyres in, let’s say, a better window, even though I think in Q3, compared to Q2, it felt a bit better, let’s say, on one timed lap.

"So, it was better but not… for me not personally enjoyable to drive at the moment, with the tyres and grip on the track, because, I mean, I was here in January and I thought it was going to be amazing to drive a F1 car," summed up Verstappen. Teammate Alexander Albon, meanwhile, was disappointed to be starting outside the top five in sixth, but was happy with his lap, and is confident in his ability to deliver a strong result come the race.

Ahead of Albon - to the surprise of many - was Ferrari's Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque came fourth, and rightly felt that he extracted the most out of his car, which can be seen this F1 weekend sporting new updates. Strategy-wise, he is on the medium compound as well to start the grand prix. "I am very happy with my lap and I think we managed to get everything out of the car," he said.

"Congratulations to the whole team for the great job they have done, both in Maranello and here at the track. The latest updates we introduced here have also added a bit of performance to our car and the last few qualifying sessions show we are heading in the right direction. Already in practice, I had a good feeling about Saturday, while there are still various things we need to look at before the race.

"But I am very happy to have got through Q2 on the Medium tyre, because I’m sure it's the ideal tyre for the start of the race. In Germany we suffered on the Soft tyres in the low temperatures, while here it’s not as cold and we have the Mediums. I need to get a good start and if I manage that, I can be in the fight for a strong result." Teammate Sebastian Vettel was a long way off, and critical of himself for that fact after he finished 15th.

The German struggled massively to keep the tyres in an optimal performance window, and explained that the comfort he had on the medium tyres - something that motivated a decision to try to make the top ten on that particular compound - in practice was not replicated in Qualifying.

Similarly to Leclerc, Racing Point's Sergio Perez felt he maximized his result, coming P5. The Mexican F1 driver was appreciative of his team's efforts to overhaul the set-up on the RP20 overnight, after the car was not to his liking on Friday. "I think we got the maximum out of the car – and P5 was the best result we could secure," he said.

"It’s a real credit to the team too because we were struggling to find the optimum set-up on Friday and then we turned the car upside down this morning and improved the package a lot. You could really see how difficult the conditions were out there because we were slower in Q3 than we were in Q2 as the wind picked up a lot and the track became slower. We could see that in the final sector times. It’s been a challenge out there because it’s tricky to get the temperature into the tyres - and it’s about not overheating them either - so it sometimes took a few laps to get it right.

"Every lap was different to drive, but we picked up a good rhythm in Q1 and Q2 and carried it into Q3. It’s clear that Mercedes and Red Bull are well ahead, but there’s a real close battle behind and we’re right in the mix. We’re starting P5 and on the cleaner side of the grid, so if we can get a good start, there’s a lot to play for and good points on the table."

Perez's teammate Lance Stroll was not so lucky, as his challenges with car balance continued Saturday. Specifically, the Canadian expressed that his RP20 was 'snappier' than ideal in Q2. Renault, meanwhile, had a worse day than anticipated. In the case of Esteban Ocon, the Frenchman failed to make Q3, and the one car represented in the top ten, driven by Daniel Ricciardo, was unable to contest Q3 - the result of a spin late in Q2 that saw him remind the barriers of his presence.

The Australian F1 driver explained that pace was lacking regardless of his spin, though he suspects that there was more to offer than his eventual 10th place signifies. “The track is hard to find a good balance on and I think the temperatures and wind changed quite a bit from this morning so that was also challenging," he said. "We had the small issue with DRS at the end of Free Practice 3, and I think our one lap pace wasn’t the best this weekend.

"We got through Q1, but it was really tight between a number of cars in Q2 and then I had my spin at the end of the session. I do think there was still a bit more in the car, so it’s a shame we didn’t get out and have a go in Q3, but the guys did their best to try get me back out. It’s all to play for tomorrow, so let’s see what we can do,” he said.

Ocon, meanwhile, offered accounts of his day, which was plagued by difficulties with car set-up - an issue that affected many on the grid. Both McLaren drivers echoed a similar message to this, as the pairing, while both within the top ten, were dissatisfied with their respective performances and the balance of their cars, Lando Norris perhaps more so than his teammate Carlos Sainz.

[This story was written by me for FormulaRapida and edited by Darshan Chokhani]

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