He got a few laps in at the end of the session and, initially on the medium tyre in Q2, lapped exactly four-tenths shy of Verstappen. Right on the bubble, he swapped to the softs for his second run but missed out on a Q3 slot by 0.05sec and starts 12th. He’ll have freedom of tyre choice but passing at Silverstone is never the work of a moment.
In the run-up to Silverstone, Ferrari chairman John Elkann conceded that the team is unlikely to be winning again before 2022 but gave a vote of confidence to team principal Mattia Binotto as Maranello announced a technical reshuffle.
With aero issues and a loss of power in 2020, Silverstone was expected to be a tough weekend with speculation over whether the red cars would actually avoid being lapped!
Against that backdrop it was a surprise when Charles Leclerc used the medium compound to clear Q2 and then qualified fourth quickest on the soft tyre – on which the car had felt awful the previous day – with a best lap just a tenth down on Verstappen.
“I’m very happy with that!” Leclerc admitted. “I didn’t expect P4, especially on the mediums. We were destroying the soft quickly, so starting on the medium will help us a lot.”
Look forward, then, to a highly charged opening lap. Bottas will be more than keen to jump Hamilton and territorial disputes involving Verstappen and Leclerc are always spicy – remember last year!
Take a bow Lando Norris. While McLaren was targeting Q3, the team was not expecting to outqualify Racing Point around Silverstone. Norris and team-mate Carlos Sainz didn’t think they had sufficient pace to use the medium in Q2 and got through safely enough on the soft. Then Lando produced another great lap to beat his team-mate by almost two-tenths and qualify fifth as the pair of them sandwiched Lance Stroll’s Racing Point. Hanging onto those positions in the race could be tough though. Starting behind them, outside the top 10 and likely on the medium tyre, will be a Red Bull and a Racing Point.
Quite how Nico Hülkenberg will fare in the second ‘pink Mercedes’ will be interesting. When Sergio Perez tested positive for Covid on Thursday, Hülkenberg thought he would be driving a GT race in Germany this weekend. That soon changed and he re-routed from Cologne to Birmingham, and thence to the familiar Silverstone territory of the team for which he raced for four seasons to the end of 2016.
“I could see after first practice his head was leaning to one side. He has quite a long neck, which in F1 is not nice to have!”
He finished a seat fitting at 2am Friday, was back for a quick simulator session at 8am and then his mandatory Covid test at the circuit, before being given the all-clear 10 minutes before he was due out on the track!
When you’ve been out of an F1 cockpit for nigh on eight months, Silverstone is not the kindest place to make your return. I recall Martin Brundle telling me that when you’ve been away for just the winter and you test at Silverstone in February/March (in the days when you could!) everything comes at you a bit quickly and you’re behind the car for a while.
And Hulk, of course, was coming back into a chassis with perhaps more downforce/grip than anything in the field bar the works Mercs. Against a driver whose ability is probably beyond the perception.
Hülkenberg did a good job. Just over half a second from Stroll on the opening day, you knew that deep down, as a racer, he’d have been hoping to have Lance. He didn’t quite manage it though. Stroll made it through Q2 on the medium compound tyre by the skin of his teeth, 10th, with Pierre Gasly recording an identical 1min 26.501sec lap, down to the last thousandth on the soft, but doing it later.
Albon was four-hundredths behind that and Hülkenberg, who did his first Q2 run on the medium then switched to the soft, was a further two-hundredths down. As Christian Horner said, such fine margins.
So, was The Hulk happy to end up just 0.06sec adrift of his team-mate first time up?
“Yes and no. I felt that there was more potential and I left a bit on the table. I’ve never felt so much speed and downforce. Very impressive. But also tough…”
He’ll certainly know all about a sore neck by the end of the race. As Verstappen chortled, “I could see after first practice his head was leaning to one side. He has quite a long neck, which in F1 is not nice to have!”
The great story, of course, would be Nico finally getting the monkey of most F1 starts without a podium off his back. From 13th, even on the right tyre, that’s got to be asking too much. But with a few days recovery and more car-fit / preparation time, it might be a bit more realistic next weekend.