Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 22° Track 34° Humidity 62.4% Wind 4.8 m/s
Bright, sunny and windy a complete contrast to the typhoon that smashed into Japan the day before and kicked qualifying all the way to race day, with the all the risks inherent in not smashing ones car hours before the race trying for that extra tenth. Many rumours swirling equally strongly round the paddock, including one that saw Ferrari running conservative PU settings whilst Mercedes turned it up to the max on Friday. Possibly due to the fact that Hamilton was potentially running a new chassis update that not only freed up some weight but also improved the cooling.
Green Light!! Leclerc, Vettel and Sainz were first off the mark and then it was Kubica, a bit further behind. Hulkenberg and Russell were next. Of interest, the Ferraris and the McLarens were running on the Hard tyre. And at 15:51 there was Kubica, straight into the wall and bringing out the red flag and oh that’s not a happy looking car. And that’s even before considering they retired him from the previous race due to concern for a lack of spare parts. 4 hours then, and a bit of work for the Williams team to get him back out for the race.
Sonme discussion of tailwind followed as the marshals did their job and when the session restarted, it was Giovinazzi and Raikkonen leading pretty much everyone but the Mercedes and Ferraris. Gasly and Kvyat were the pair behind the Alfas, then the Racing Points. Early days it was Gasly on it, purpling sector one till the HAAS of Kevin Magnussen rolled through.
Norris was next to steal the honours for the first sector and as he was well on his way it was Gasly to the top, followed by Kvyat and Giovinazzi and then at 11:42 another yellow flag followed quite rapidly by a red as it was Kevin Magnussen’s turn to go off at exactly the same place as Kubica went off. The difference being that he was able to reverse onto the circuit and carry on, albeit without large chunks of his car. At this point, it was only Gasly, Kvyat, Giovinazzi, Stroll, Perez, Raikkonen and Russell that had set times, with a rather large contingent behind having had their laps spoiled. Accordingly, the wind hypothesis was given some extra scrutiny as the marshals once again got to it. With the front wing gone, and the rear wing thoroughly disarranged, it was going to be a bit of work to get the car repaired for Kmag, and with no real idea what kind of floor damage there was, it seemed a bit dubious from the cheap seats he would be able to rejoin the session.
With one minute to go to restart the session, a massive queue began to form, this time with Mercedes behind just the Renault of Hulkenberg. Ricciardo bookended the Silver Arrows and then it was Verstappen, the Ferraris intermingled with the McLArens, then Gasly and Kvyat. Albon, Raikkonen, Russell, and Giovinazzi brought up the rear as the hotlaps got underway.
Vettel was quickest in the fist sector, with Hamilton fastest in the second, but it was Bottas to the top early days, until first Verstappen, and then Leclerc displaced him, with a 1:28.405. Vettel slotted into 3rd with Sainz and Albon just behind. Bottas and Hamilton had dropped to a rather remarkable P6 and P7. Verstappen complained of his boost button not working, but with 6 minutes left it was Perez and Raikkonen on the outs looking in, with Magnussen and Kubica already done and Grosjean on his outlap.
Grosjean was sandwiched between Bottas and Hamilton who were on their second efforts. P3 for Bottas on the second go and then it was Hamilton up to P2, but still 0.33 seconds behind the time of Leclerc. Grosjean managed a solid P8 and that left Stroll, Russell and Raikkonen with it all to do as Perez had managed to elevate himself up to P12.
3 minutes to go and once again, the track was full, with Stroll leading the way as the final battle to make the glories of Q2 kicked off. Reasonable first sector, bit scrappy but fast enough in the second and then he headed for home and up to P10, for the moment at least. Chequers then and it was Raillonen next throught and up to P14. Ricciardo just P15 and then Hulkenberg knocked him straight out by going P13. Perez, who had fallen out, was unable to improve and it was Kvyat nabbing the last transfer spot as the rather scrappy session at last came to an end.
Going no further then were Ricciardo, Perez, Russell, Magnussen and Kubica, off in search of some kusaya whilst the rest turned it round for the rigors of Q2 as the wind gusted up to 6.4 m/s and the stakes increased dramatically.
Q2 kicked off with a whole lotta nothing. With 12 minutes left, at last, it was Leclerc and Vettel leading the way, then Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and Giovinazzi. Leclerc asked why the tyres were cold as he launched into his hotlap, and the engineers reassured him they would be fine for the start. Purple all the way round in his minisectors, but it was Vettel who was faster, by half a tenth or so. Vettel nailed the second sector as well and confirmation then as the pair took the finish line, Vettel ahead with a 1:28.174 by a thunderous 0.005 seconds. Bottas was P3, a further tenth back as Hamilton was painting the board purple and it was well into the 1:27’s he went, up to P1 and 0.348 seconds up on the Scuderia.
Verstappen and Albon P5 and P6 with Sainz, Raikkonen, Norris and the plucky Grosjean, perhaps helped by his model building on his off day yesterday. Verstappen again complained about a power loss, dropping 0.4 seconds to Albon in just the final sector. Add that in, and he was in the top 3, but of course, if wishes were horses and all that.
Gasly, Kvyat, Giovinazzi, Stroll and Hulkenberg were in the drop zone and with the clock ticking it was all to play for as only half a second or so covered the bottom 5. Stroll led the way for the final assault on the ramparts of Q3, followed by Hulkenberg and Norris. Grosjean rocked in behind them and then Sainz, Gasly, Raikkonen and Giovinazzi made a nice quartet. Kvyat and Albon were next up in a sweet duo and then it was the heavies, Bottas and Hamilton. “Do not change gear, do not change gear, scenario 12 we have a major problem” and that was that for Hulkenberg.
P8 for Stroll, but not for long as Norris went P6 then Grosjean P9. Sainz to P8 and then Gasly to P8 which put Stroll out. Bang, Albon up to P2 for a moment, until Bottas went P1 and dropped him to P3. And that was that. Going no further were Giovinazzi, Stroll, Raikkonen, Kvyat and, naturally, Hulkenberg. Verstappen made no progress, but had run on a used set of tyres as Honda desperately tried to troubleshoot his mysterious issue, and if Albon’s performance was any clue, Verstappen was indeed on for a strong shot if they could sort his PU. And Ferrari had neatly saved themselves an extra set of tyres by not doing a last run….
The hallowed fields of Q3 were first graced by Norris, best of the rest in the previous session, followed by Gasly, Bottas, Hamilton and Sainz. After a brief interlude, Leclerc and Vettel were next out, and trailing far behind, Verstappen. As Max entered the esses, Albon emerged from the pitlane. And that was that as Lando hurtled down the straight towards T1 and started the festivities. Sector 1 went to Hamilton by a hair, at least until Vettel went through and bettered him. Leclerc took him for Sector 2, again until Vettel rocked by and it was looking good for the Ferrari driver, a fact confirmed when he crossed the line and take P1 by 0.323 seconds ahead of Leclerc, followed by Bottas and Hamilton, then Verstappen and Norris. Big slide from Bottas in the last chicane, and a big time loss from Lewis in the middle sector suggested that the fight was far from over, as the rest turned it around for the last runs for the ultimate palmares.
Taking advantage of the quiet track, Grosjean was out with around 5 minutes to go. P8 after a solid lap and as he was rolling back to the pits, out came Gasly, Norris and Sainz to have a go. AS they approached Spoon, the remainder of the drivers popped up on track, Leclerc first, then Verstappen, Vettel, Albon, Bottas and Hamilton, with it all to do….
Purple to Leclerc first, the to Vettel, with neither Mercedes able to touch them. Again, into Sector 2 it was Leclerc, setting fastest time, but this time he held it. Neither driver was able to better their last sector time and with Vettel ahead of Leclerc and both with improved times, it was all down to the Mercedes and Sector 3, Bottas first across and he couldn’t do it, up to P3 and then Hamilton, P4. Behind, Albon and Verstappen ran the exact same time, to the thousandth for P5 (Verstappen) and P6 (Albon). Still some questions then lingering over the Honda, not quite ready to party with the big boys but with some serious promise shown.
Sainz claimed best of the rest followed by his teammate, then Gasly and Grosjean to round out the top 10. The next race was for Williams and HAAS to get their wounded cars out, but it was a rather delightfully surprising result for the Scuderia, 5 in a row, which had not expected to be in such a strong position…
With a one stop on tap, and a tricky track to pass on, Mercedes looked to have its hands full but as the last race most aptly demonstrated, nothing can be taken for granted…
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