Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 22° Track 31° Humidity 61% Wind 0.8 m/s
After a night of weatherpalooza glorious blue skies reigned over the paddock as last preparations for the qualifying session got underway. The biggest news, of course, was Mercedes agreeing to once again supply Power Units to McLaren, leading to all sorts of speculation not only about Mercedes trajectory into the new 2021 regulations, but Renault as well given as of 2021 they would no longer have any customers….
Leclerc led the way in FP3 followed by Vettel and then Hamilton, with Albon looking to be under a bit of pressure finishing P7 overall with Grosjean ahead of him, the reversion to the Australia spec working rather well for HAAS at this circuit. Kvyat had an issue with his engine installation and was out for quali whilst the rest of the Honda powered crew would be taking a new ICE and the 5 spot penalty that went along with it….
Green Light!! Russell was first out with Kubica not far behind. Vettel and Lelcerc were out next on the Medium tyre and then the Alfas followed them, Raikkonen leading Giovinazzi. Gasly Sainz, Norris, Grosjean and Magnussen came out as Russell kicked off the hotlaps and then Stroll and Perez were out just as Kubica got his efforts underway.
Plenty of good traffic then and it was a 1:36 for Russel with Kubica about a second back as the clock rolled past the 14 minute mark. But it was Leclerc painting the board purple and even on the Medium he was up to a 1:33.613 as Vettel had a lurid slide and had to back out and reset.
Best of the rest at that point was Sainz, followed by Norris but as the HAAS drivers crossed the line it was Magnussen, edging him by nearly 0.25 seconds with teammate Grosjean rocking up P5, just behind Norris.
During the action both Red Bull and Mercedes had sent their drivers out and Albon was the first to have a go. He made it about halfway around, still looking scruffy and decided to back off as he encountered a short yellow flag. That left Bottas to be the first to displace Magnussen from P2 and then Hamilton, went to the top, but at 0.383 seconds faster than Leclerc on the Medium tyre. Verstappen, too, managed to best the Monegasque, by an even narrower margin, just 0.138 seconds. Promising look for Ferrari. Gasly radioed in issues with his rear as he deftly managed a lurid hit of oversteer
Turn 13 then claimed its first victim, Alexander Albon, who parked it backwards into the wall, in a copycat of Verstappen’s FP3 gentle tap, but at a much faster and more damaging speed. Already facing a 5 spot grid penalty it was not a good look for the rookie, who appeared to have made the mistake of not realising that he only needed to be top 15, not top 6 in the first session of the day. The incident brought out the red flags spoiling Vettel’s 3rd attempt to get out of the bottom 5. With Kvyat already out needing an engine change and 6:38 left on the clock that was the bottom 4 then and not too much of a challenge for a Ferrari one would think, with lots of speculation amongst the commentariat as to next year’s Red Bull lineup to fill the time….
Vettel was first out of the box when the session restarted, now on Soft tyres, so that was a wasted set of Mediums for him and a permanent tyre offset for Leclerc in Ferrari’s strategy. Purple sector one and then to the top went Vettel. 0.2 seconds up on Hamilton, a 1:33 dead as the track continued to evolve.
With Vettel out of the drop zone and 2 minutes left, it was Gasly, Russell and Kubica battling for the spot that was occupied by Stroll. Ferrari and Verstappen had sat out the last minute frenzy, but it was Mercedes making an unusual appearance on some Softs, presumably to check some set up tweak.
Gasly was up to P11 and that put Raikkonen out, Ricciardo up to P7 behind Magnussen who had retaken the spot from Sainz just seconds before as it boiled down to a nail biter between Raikkonen and Giovinazzi, with Kimi catching a handful of oversteer through the last turn and losing that all important tenth to his teammate.
Going no further then were Raikkonen, Russell, Kubica, Albon, and Kvyat, off to find some borscht to eat their feelings as the rest got themselves turned around for the rigors of Q2…
Q2 started with the Mercedes, Bottas leading Hamilton as the light went green at the end of the pitlane. Verstappen was out about 20 seconds later, and then Perez. Mercedes kicked off with the Medium tyre but Verstappen, with the 5 spot penalty (for a new ICE for Suzuka) opted for the Softs as Ferrari sat in the garage, watching.
Not for too long, though, as out the Scuderia went on the Softs, suggesting that perhaps Mercedes was not convinced it could take pole and was betting on better race pace and tyre management early in the race to take the win on the contra strategy…. AT any rate, it was down to Ferrari to challenge on the same strategy as Mercedes had played it’s cards, but they had no doubt theirs was the better strategy and off they went…
Hamilton was through with a 1:33.134 followed by Bottas, with Verstappen, on the Softs, just a smidge faster. And then the Ferraris bombed through, Leclerc ahead of Vettel by 0.657 seconds in a stonking 1:32.434….
Best of the rest was Gasly, then followed by Perez, Norris, Hulkenberg and Sainz and that left Magnussen, first of those on the outside looking in, along with Grosjean, Stroll, Ricciardio and Giovinazzi as they all retired to the pits to prepare for the last tilt at the ultimate glory of Q3… With 0.2 seconds from P6 to P12 it was anybody’s ballgame as the seconds ticked away…..
Stroll was out first, then Perez for the last go. Norris and Sainz then followed by Grosjean, Vettel, and Magnussen. Bit more of a gap then it was Gasly, Ricciardo and Hilkenberg and at the tail end, it was Leclerc, Verstappen and Giovinazzi.
2 minutes to go and Stroll hit the line not looking faster through his first sector and then well over the kerbs in Turn 7. Behind Perez looked to be improving his time. No improvement for Perez, as Norris jumped to P6 and then Sainz jumped Sergio. Grosjean to P6 as Ricciardo went P9 and then Hulkenberg just nicked Gasly for P10. Thus it was Gasly, Perez, Giovinazzi, Magnussen and Stroll going no further, off in search of some Vodka to ease the pain as the rest got themselves together for the hallowed grounds of Q3. On replay, it was a big understeer for Magnussen in Turn 7 that took him off track followed by a lock up that ruined his effort. Split strategy then for HAAS likely and a bit of redemption for Grosjean, who had been taking it on the chin following the decision to re-sign him for the struggling American team.
Q3 and it was getting a bit spicy as Norris kicked off the action, followed by the Renaults, Ricciardo leading Hulkenberg, and Grosjean trailing the bunch. Next up was the sharp end, Bottas, Hamilton, Vettel, Leclerc and finally, far back, a lonely Verstappen emerged, as Norris wandered into Turn 15 and got ready to wind it up for his first go.
Across the line with 10 minutes to go he went but it was Grosjean with the purple first sector. Norris responded with Sector 2, which Grosjean couldn’t match and then P1 for Norris, for the moment, before Hulkenberg outdid him, with Sainz and Grosjean just behind. At the sharp end it was Hamilton ahead of Bottas, but neither faster than Vettel before Leclerc easily settled the matter, going 1:31.801 more than half a second up on the Mercedes and 0.334 seconds faster than Vettel….
Verstappen was P5 and looking at the sector times, it was Leclerc, rocking Sector 2 for a gain of nearly 0.15 seconds on Vettel and 0.2 seconds on Hamilton being definitive, with no one able to get close. On replay, it was Verstappen, with a sloppy exit to T13 as the balance of the Red Bull did appear to be a bit knife edge, costing him some time.
Last chances then and with 3 minutes left, hulkenberg, Norris, Ricciardo Sainz and Grosjean, then Vettel, Leclerc, erstappen, Bottas and Hamilton set up to be last across the line.
Norris was on it early, green mini sectors across the board. Hulkenberg made a comeback in Sector 2 with Sainz also well on it. At the back, Vettel was matching Leclerc, but again Charles was up on overall laptime. Sainz was fastest across the line, followed by Norris and Hulkenberg, with Grosjean and Ricciardo unable to make any progres as the sharp end approached the end of their laps. And it was Leclerc, another 0.2 seconds faster and then Vettel but Hamilton spoiled the front row party, nicking the spot from Vettel by 0.023 seconds. Verstappen was next fastest and then it was Bottas, an abysmal one full second back…….
Given all that, Leclerc was well less than pleased with his final sector, as Hamilton was able to claw back nearly 0.3 seconds, but his irritation dissipated rapidly with news that pole position was indeed his. Hamilton was genuinely happy to be ahead of his rival, and there was no disappointment as he felt he had clearly extracted the maximum from the package Mercedes had provided.
All of which sets up a delicious race from a strategy point of view, with Mercedes looking to run long and take advantage of Soft tyres at the end of the race whilst Ferrari will have the option of pushing hard, building a gap and then defending at the end, or going slow and long, giving them fresher tyres at the end and trying to goad Mercedes into burning their Softs trying to get round them. Or, likely, splitting strategy and forcing Mercedes to make some very interesting and difficult choices…
In the midfield, it will once again be fascinating to see if HAAS can maintain some race pace, as they were able to for most of the Singapore race whilst it looks likely that McLaren once again has the car to beat. Bottas admitted to snap oversteer on Turn 13 all day, which compromised his times. Exciting times indeed…..
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