Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 20° Track 36° Humidity 48.5% Wind 1.08 m/s
The heavy haze of industrial life hung like a blanket over the paddock as the cost of China’s economic expansion made itself painfully visible. Less so was the sudden tailwind in FP3 into the final corner which first sent Vettel wide, spoiling what would’ve been a significantly faster lap than his posted time and then Alex Albon into a tank slapper that ended rather abruptly (and expensively) in the outside barrier. That put paid to the last minutes of the session, spoiling fast laps by, amongst others, both HAAS runners.
Hamilton had managed to spoil his fast lap all on his own, with a mistake that caused him to abandon his first run and then go again on tyres that were well past their prime. In fact, of the frontrunners, only Bottas and Leclerc managed to improve on their second, late session runs. Make of that what you will.
Also to make of, the fact that after replacing the Control Electronics in both Ferraris and HAAS cars, Vettel still spent a nice chunk of time with the nose of his car off and something vaguely electrical being examined. Renault turned up with new MGU-K’s for their engines and Red Bull, Williams, and Mercedes were all told that their endplate design was not legal, necessitating a change of plan for all three marques.
Also with wing issues were HAAS, with Grosjean suffering a wing failure and the resulting fix adding some weight to the nose, which didn’t help them get to grips with the set up and tyre issues that stumbled them in Bahrain. And with Williams, a bit more detail as to the difference between the two chassis, namely that Kubica’s has more DF forward which makes his a bit more oversteery relative to Russell.
Alas as far as qualifying goes, confirmation pretty much immediately that Albon would not be taking part as he would be getting a new chassis, a shame as his Toro Rosso has looked good across the sessions and he had very nice pace on the hard tyre in his long run on FP2.
Green Light!! Kubica and Russell first out of the gate and wasting little time as the rest of the field laze about the paddock. Well, except Albon’s crew who were hard up against it. They were left alone and at the end of their hot laps, Russell was well ahead as Kubica complained of massive oversteer from initial understeer. Not confidence inspiring.
Ferrari were out around the 13 minute mark and the action picked up quickly from there. Leclerc was first off, but with a job to do picking his way around traffic. AS he hammered around, ahead of him on their outlap were both Mercedes, Kvyat and Giovinazzi. And it was the Alfa that got in the way, hanging up Leclerc on his way to the final corner.
Vettel then to the top with a 1:33.557 a plump target for the two Mercedes who were battling it out. Early doors it was Hamilton, but cleaning up was his teammate and by time they both crossed the line it was a nearly half second advantage for the Finn, as Hamilton continued to struggle a bit keeping his lap clean.
Verstappen snuck into 3rd, 0.6 seconds back of Bottas and ahead of Vettel. But it was Leclerc who had really suffered, down to P11 and absolutely needing to have a second go to be safe. Gasly meanwhile did himself no favors by managing a pallid P10, with Kvyat ahead of him. Best of the rest was Hulkenberg, trailed by Grosjean. Kvyat was sandwiched between the HAAS drivers and it was Ricciardo in P9 demonstrating that best of the rest was again shaping up to be a Renault/HAAS battle.
5 minutes to go and the track slowly emptied as all the runners came in to reset for one last shot at the glories of Q2. On the outside looking in, were Stroll, Kubica, Russell, Giovinazzi and, of course, that not participating Albon. Raikkonen was in the hot seat as the field began to roll out with just over 2 minutes left in the session.
Not playing along was Giovinazzi though, parked up in the garage for reasons unknown, though he had already had mechanical problems with his ride earlier “engine installation issues” in official speak.
Kmag led the way but all eyes were on Leclerc. AS he was on his way, Sainz was up to P6 and then Leclerc was up to P2 just 0.054 off Bottas. Stroll couldn’t get the job done, out in Q1 AGAIN with Perez up to P12. Hulkenberg retook P6 and it was Norris, the last of the squeakers in P15. Going no further were Stroll, Russell, Kubica, Giovinazzi and Albon, off for some dim sum whilst the rest turned it around for Q2.
Power unit issues for Giovinazzi and extra set of Softs used by Leclerc was the tally in the interval, though perhaps check the latter off to Ferrari as it was traffic that sunk his first effort.
Q2 opened with a whole lot of nothing, with the first two minutes run off the clock with not a hint of action on track. Finally, with 12 minutes left, out went Perez followed by pretty much everyone, the strategy boffins apparently having had drinks together last night.
Whole lotta Mediums going on at the front with both Ferraris and Mercedes rocking them proudly along with Verstappen. Perez was first off on his hot lap but behind him came the two Mercedes, Hamilton leading the way from Bottas and Raikkonen sandwiched in between. IT was Bottas rocking the purples tho and again to the top he went, a 1:31.728 nearly a second faster than his teammate.
Vettel was next across and he was a full half second back with Leclerc less than a tenth off. Verstappen was P4 ahead of Hamilton and then it was Gasly, who managed to get it thereabouts, albeit on a softer compound tyre. Kvyat was best of the rest followed by Magnussen and the 2 Renaults, this time Ricciardo leading the way. .
Grosjean set no time following a vicious snap oversteer and he, along with Perez, Sainz, Raikkonen, and Norris had it all to do as the clock ticked inexorably down.
2 minutes to go and it was on, Raikkonen leading the way, followed by Bottas and Norris. Vettel, Hamilton, Verstappen were the last 3 on track, and it was just Hamilton on the Medium tyre, along with Leclerc. Bottas was on the Softs, as were Vettel and Verstappen, very much getting a taste for Q3.
Grosjean, under the most pressure with no time on the board was throwing up greens and purples along his lap, Raikkonen went P10 no improvement though, Norris failed to better his time, Kvyat confirmed P7 but no improvement on time and then Sainz couldn’t get it done either. Kmag then was up to P7 and then RoGro hit the line P9 and last, Hulkenberg to P7 which dropped Kvyat out. Hamilton, meanwhile had figured something out and to the top he went, a 1:31.637 and 0.091 seconds up on Bottas.
Raikkonen, it turned out, had power issues that took him out but no further he went, out, along with Kvyat, Perez, Sainz and Norris and off in search of a bit of Baijiu to drown their sorrows as the rest got themselves ready for the hallowed ground of Q3.
Q3 opened with a magnificent bit of inactivity, Ricciardo being the first to blink with 10:30 left in the session. Hamilton and Bottas followed him out and then the Red Bulls, Gasly trailing. Magnussen, Keclerc, Vettel and Gorsjean were the next quartet and as they began their outlap, Ricciardo was just entering the hairpin to set off on his adventure.
Lotta purple on the board early days but it was still Bottas setting fastest sectors. 1:31.57 for Hamilton and then Bottas eked it, going 1:31.563 0.007 seconds up. Vettel was P3 but nearly half a second back with Verstappen going P4 and then Leclerc and Gasly. Neither Haas finished their lap and the middle sector was proving to be Ferrari’s downfall…
2 minutes to go and out went Hamilton, followed by Bottas then Ricciardo and Hulkenberg. Back of them came Leclerc, Vettel and Verstappen. Last were Magnussen, Gasly and Grosjean, though both Verstappen and Leclerc were moving rapidly through the clutch of slow movers.
Hamilton was first off and unlike the previous run he was just up on Bottas whilst behind, both Ferraris were suddenly on it. Across the line and the 3rd sector was Hamilton’s undoing, whereas Bottas, having kept his powder dry picked up an extra 0.16 seconds on Hamilton. Vettel went P3, but narrowed the margin to just 0.3 seconds, followed by Leclerc, just a hundredth off. Verstappen was P5 but it turned on their being an utter scrum to get across the line for the checquers, with Vettel passing Verstappen who kept trying to give himself space and just wound up being passed by about 5 cars trying to make their lap. And that did him in, along with both HAAS drivers and Gasly. So the only race for best of the rest was Renault, with Ricciardo besting Hulkenberg by the staggeringly tiny margin of 0.004 seconds.
Tomorrow’s race now promises some interesting strategy, with a one stop possible by going Soft to a max of 18 laps, and then switching to the Hards. Most teams ran one driver on Mediums and one on Hards in FP2 but rather notably, Red Bull ran BOTH their drivers on the Mediums and Softs only. Of course, of the top 6, only Gasly will be starting on Softs so it will be worth paying close attention the first time that Verstappen boxes to see what tyres he emerges on. OF course, one stop is the gold standard at the front of the field so that’s the most likely scenario, but maybe we’ll get lucky. Fortunately, we’ll also have the Formula B race to reckon with, in colder conditions than today’s session, it’s a sure recipe for havoc, especially at the start of the race. HAAS were quickest in best of the rest race sims, but Renault have the strategic advantage of track position and it should be quite the show once the lights go out.
The track itself is front limited and according to Grosjean “the challenge is to look after your tyres, especially the fronts with those long corners: Turn One, Turn Seven-Eight, Turn 13.” With Mercedes dominating the turns and Ferrari the straits, it will be a contrast of styles and there are multiple overtaking spots on the circuit just to keep the drivers on their toes.
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