F1 Saturday: Mercedes/Red Bull duel, Ocon spin, Leclerc P5, & more
Saturday of the Tuscan GP weekend had many talking points, some being Red Bull's competitiveness, Ocon's spin, Leclerc's surprise P5, and much more.
At the sharp end of the grid once again after a Qualifying session, Lewis Hamilton took pole in the sport's maiden F1 Tuscan GP at Mugello, cementing himself as a 95-time pole winner in the process. It was a turnaround for the six-time champion, who had been outpaced by his teammate in all prior sessions of the weekend.
The Brit was admittedly aided by a yellow flag that prohibited his main rival, Valtteri Bottas, from properly contesting his lap time, and though his final lap of the day was slower than ones prior, Hamilton was happy with his performance, as beating his teammate demanded a lot from him in this particular round. Once again, he also left a positive review of Mugello.
"Straight from the get-go this F1 weekend Valtteri has had the upper hand," said Hamilton. "It was difficult at the beginning to know where we stood, it looked like the Red Bulls, Max, was closer to us than perhaps the last race and yeah, Valtteri was quicker all day yesterday, quicker this morning, quicker into Q1. It was like nothing I did, I was making all these changes, I changed a lot in the set-up and again just really studying the kerbs and trying to make sure I improved in all the areas I was weak.
"I went out in Q1 and I still wasn’t quick enough. But I love that challenge and I really enjoy the battle with Valtteri. Once I got to Q2 I got quite a good lap and my Q3, run one, was a decent lap. I think there was still a little bit of time left on the table so I was hoping to get that for the last one. But I think the wind picked up. I could really feel it a little bit more gusty down the straight up into Turn 1 and the car was sliding around a lot more on that lap. So I ended up being a bit down," summed up Hamilton.
In the second-place car, Bottas felt a pole was on the cards before the waving of the double-yellow flags, but confessed that he should have put in a stronger first lap in Q3. "It’s been a good start to the weekend and good practice sessions, including today and after practice three I was still looking at all the things that had to be improved for qualifying," he said.
"Everything was going nice and smooth, Q1, Q2. The Q3 first lap wasn’t quite good enough so I also felt there’s definitely time still to be found. I was confident of myself doing it, but obviously there was no chance with the double yellows in the second run. In the end I should have just done a better job in the first run. Lewis managed to find the pace and his first run was better than mine and that’s it."
Spurred on by a steep incline in competitiveness for this weekend, third-place Max Verstappen genuinely posed a threat to the Mercedes duo for pole - a rarity in the 2020 season. The Dutchman was tantalized by the proximity of the two leading drivers, just as he was happy with his own performance.
"I felt very happy in the car," said Verstappen. "It was all about fine-tuning things and, of course, trying to do things better – but overall it’s been a very positive weekend so far. We were reasonably close to them now, in qualifying, so we can be happy with that. Q3, I expected a little bit more from Q3 but my first run wasn’t, let’s say, the best lap of my life. It wasn't bad – but it wasn’t the best. And then I wanted to push a bit more in the second run.
"Even when I was close to Lewis, so bit more in a tow but I think the wind picked up, so I think the track was just a bit slower. I still managed to improve a little bit, so it meant, I think, there was still a little bit more in it – but not four-tenths, I think it was, or whatever. Anyway, I didn’t expect to beat them in qualifying," Verstappen said.
Teammate Alexander Albon was happy to make progress as he qualified a career-best fourth as he added that he lacked confidence in practice session but picked up gradually with changes in the car. Looking at the race, he reckons his start will be important to have a clean race and secure a Top 4 position.
Behind the Noah's Arc formation that comprised the top four, meanwhile, was Charles Leclerc, piloting a burgundy Ferrari SF1000, the team celebrating at this round its 1000th Grand Prix contested. The Monegasque was helped by a yellow flag in sector one, as it also forced his competitors to slow, thereby ensuring his position.
Nevertheless, it was up to the Monegasque to string the remainder of the lap together, and that he did, carrying enough speed in the process to secure him a good grid spot for Sunday's race.
"It was definitely amazing," began the Ferrari driver, who felt the result was maximized. "P5 was definitely the best we could have done and I did not expect it, so very, very happy," he added. The pace came as a surprise, as did that which he experienced during FP1 on Friday. Then, he had stated that the competitiveness was a mystery, and one day later, the same is true of his qualifying performance, though he has some theories.
"It's still a bit of an unknown, and this is very important for us to understand, because that's how we can consistently be at our best. At the moment, I'd say the characteristics of the track are better for our car -- for sure. But it doesn't explain all of the performance this weekend. The balance definitely feels a lot better, so I'm pretty sure that there's also some driving coming into play.
"At Monza, I was really not comfortable with the car, and I was probably not driving at my best because I didn't have confidence in the car. This weekend I have a lot of confidence in my car -- that helps me to be at my best," he explained, while his teammate Sebastian Vettel said that the car feels better, but only marginally so after his result of P13.
Ever a sportsman, the driver that qualified fifth was Sergio Perez, who will line up for Sunday's F1 race sixth, conceding his place to his teammate Lance Stroll due to a one-place grid penalty. The Mexican labelled it a positive day, and was disappointed with the penalty he was granted, but took solace in the fact that he'll be helping a teammate out in his own misfortune. Said teammate, Stroll, meanwhile, said that he was frustrated with his result, tarnished by the yellow flag that claimed many victims.
The man behind the yellow flag was Renault's Esteban Ocon, who spun late in Q3. As a result of his error, the Frenchman was unable to set a lap, as he'll now start the race in tenth position. He lauded the work done by his F1 team to deliver him a car he felt comfortable in, and was regretful to have thrown away what could have been a good result by finding the limits of the unforgiving track.
“Unfortunately, I lost the car on my Q3 run and couldn’t put in a lap time," said Ocon. "It was one of those times when you push the limits more and more throughout the session and that one was just a bit over. It’s a shame as we showed good pace and we could have qualified a lot further up. The car was good and the team did a really solid job, especially the step between FP3 and Qualifying.
The issues of Renault were only compounded by his teammate Daniel Ricciardo's inability to set one final flying lap thanks to the yellow, which was - quite comically, one might add - caused by his teammate's spin. The Australian thought a P5 might have been possible, had he not made a mess of his first Q3 attempt, and then been caught out by Ocon's incident.
Also a victim of the pirouette from the Renault driver, Carlos Sainz did well to qualify P9, even though he was somewhat disappointed to not find the true capability of his car, his efforts - like those of many other top-ten drivers - being curtailed by the caution.
"It was a good reaction to a very difficult weekend so far. We finally managed to put a good lap together in Q2 and get through to Q3. It’s disappointing to not fully see what the car was capable of doing in Q3 due to the yellow flag but, in general, I’m happy with the turnaround we made. We’ve made a lot of set-up changes across the weekend."
McLaren teammate Lando Norris failed to make Q3, qualifying 11th. The Brit called it a tricky day, but pointed out that the session isn't entirely one to forget after a degrading FP3. Another one to miss after a huge Italian GP was AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly, who ended up only 16th as he couldn't even manage to progress to Q2.
"It was frustrating as everything was going so well all F1 weekend," said Gasly. "The car was good in free practice, and in quali we pushed the engine a bit more and in my two laps before the finish line, I ran out of energy which cost us more than a tenth. Looking at the gap, we were only missing half a tenth to Q2.
"It’s clearly not good on such a track to qualify so far behind and it’s a shame because everything before that went great. We just didn’t manage to put things together in quali and we made small mistakes in the worst possible moment. We need to find a way to recover as we know we are faster than this."
[This story was written by me for FormulaRapida, and edited by Darshan Chokhani]