Nobody wanted the dark cloud of a global pandemic but, as silver linings go, it doesn’t get much better: rolling Tuscan hills, a track like Mugello, the fastest F1 cars of all time, vineyards and no traffic jams.
And, I could be wrong, but it looks like we might have ourselves a proper motor race too. As far as Q1, Valtteri Bottas was The Man. Fastest in the first session of free practice for the fifth race in succession, Bottas seemed to have Lewis Hamilton tucked up. The six-time champion admitted that although he was good in sector three, he couldn’t match his team-mate in the first two sectors. But guess what? When it mattered, he did. His 1min 15.144sec lap was almost 6sec quicker than Romain Grosjean managed when F1 cars last ran at Mugello during an in-season test in 2012!
“I was improving my set-up and my lines and finally got the lap I needed,” Hamilton explained. It was his first Q3 run that did the trick, then the wind picked up and his second effort was slower. But Bottas couldn’t prevent him taking his 95th career pole. It was his 69th for Mercedes, one more than Ayrton Senna managed in total, which tells you all you need to know about the team’s dominance these past six and a half years.
“It really hampered me,” the Finn grimaced. “My first run (just 0.06sec behind Hamilton) was okay, but I definitely had more.”
Max Verstappen was just three-tenths behind Bottas in the first of the Red Bulls. Mercedes has not shown the kind of dominance it did in low-downforce configuration at Spa and Monza and there is every chance that in race trim, with nobody quite sure whether the optimum strategy will be one-stop or two, the RB16 could give the W11 some trouble.
“I never really expected to fight for pole but overall it looks promising and we have bounced back from Monza,” Verstappen confirmed.
Team-mate Alexander Albon equalled his best F1 grid position with fourth, 0.45sec behind Max. Of course, with Pierre Gasly picking up the ball and running with it at Monza, the Frenchman’s great win has only intensified the “will Red Bull give Gasly another go?” questions. Which must all be getting a little tiresome for the personable Anglo-Thai.
Christian Horner probably needs listening to when he talks of Verstappen in the same sentence as Senna and Michael Schumacher. Right now, a seat alongside Max is probably only slightly preferable to the electric chair. If Gasly thought he was going to win it back, he’d probably have been smart to allow Carlos Sainz within DRS range a lap earlier at Monza… But all the indications are that Red Bull is intent on sticking with Albon.
Ferrari, of course, is celebrating its 1000th GP at Mugello and has marked the occasion with a return to the more muted Burgundy-red paint which adorned the Ferrari 125 which Alberto Ascari took to second place at Monaco in 1950. Burgundy, scarlet or sky-blue pink, you wouldn’t have fancied Charles Leclerc’s chances of qualifying a Ferrari in the top five at Mugello. But, with a great lap, that’s what he has achieved, pipping Racing Point by a few hundredths after outclassing team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who starts 14th, from first thing Friday morning. It spared Maranello’s blushes because Vettel was four milliseconds shy of Kimi Räikkönen’s Alfa Romeo on Ferrari’s big birthday at its home track…
“I’m super happy with that,” Leclerc admitted. “I just didn’t have a balance in low downforce trim at the last two races and struggled massively, but here we’ve put that right, the balance gave me confidence and I got everything together.”
He is realistic about the race, noting that several other teams that qualified behind him, showed decent long-run pace.
The first of those is Racing Point, with Sergio Perez 0.04sec quicker than Lance Stroll. On tomorrow’s grid, however, it is Stroll who will line up sixth as Perez serves a one-place grid penalty for contact with Räikkönen at Turn 1 after emerging from the pits in FP2.
Poor Sergio must be contemplating the meaning of life right now. On the one hand, you can’t blame Lawrence Stroll for grabbing Vettel when he became available. Some may feel that four world titles rather flatters Seb, who has clearly been bested by both Daniel Ricciardo and Leclerc in the same car, but there is no denying he is more than handy, has a great work ethic and is both a decent sort and a great ambassador.
It will have been more than coincidence that the Aston share price headed north at the time of the confirmation and even before Seb took delivery of his company Vantage! But for Perez, the timing is hugely unfortunate with no real desirable alternative seats.
If he was feeling hard done by, Perez hid it well and responded admirably in the car. To rub salt in his wound, there was a revised barge board update package available for Mugello, but only one of them, and predictably enough it went on his team mate’s car. So Sergio did well to pip Lance and will have the upgrade in Sochi.
Proving that it wasn’t straightforward to arrive at an optimum set-up with an absence of previous Mugello data, Ricciardo conceded that he’d been too light on downforce in a Saturday morning FP3 session that had seen him languishing 17th. But a move back in the other direction had him in the top five in Q2.
“That was mega and I got through on one set of tyres,” he said. “I went up again on the front wing for my first Q3 run but we went too far, then I got the yellow on my second go, so it could have been better.”
The yellow was for team-mate Ocon dropping it on the exit of Turn 3 when he was in full attack mode, having all but matched his team-mate in Q2. It all adds up to Daniel starting eighth, with Esteban 10th.
McLaren, thus far, has had something of a struggle, with Monza stand-out Sainz the team’s only representative in the top 10 and the meat in a Renault sandwich. From the start of the weekend, Sainz has been struggling to generate grip in sector one and to fully understand the limits of the car.
The same is true of team-mate Lando Norris who, coming in, was the only driver other than the Mercedes pair and Verstappen to make Q3 at every race this season. That has now gone but Lando lines up 11th, the first with freedom of tyre choice, which could mean something if, indeed, it does turn out to be a split-strategy race.
He was far from downbeat: “After FP3 (when he was 19th) I didn’t have a lot of confidence and we made a lot of changes so that qualifying was a bit into the unknown. But the car was a lot better and we were close in Q2, so let’s see.”
It was very much a case of hero to Zero for poor Gasly. The heroics looked like continuing when he was fifth quickest for AlphaTauri on Friday morning. More significantly, he was still fifth quickest on Saturday morning. But, so tight are the midfield margins, here especially, that an understeer balance in qualifying put him out in Q1, just 0.05sec behind Vettel, much to the Frenchman’s dismay. Team-mate Daniil Kvyat was a couple of tenths quicker and translated that into P12 in Q2. A week in motorsport is, as they say, a very long time…
Finally, it looked as if George Russell would lose his 30-race strong 100% qualifying record versus Robert Kubica and Nicholas Latifi. Russell had a tricky opening day and then missed all of FP3 through a brake-by-wire problem. Latifi, by contrast, was enjoying Mugello as much as anyone, looked confident and did a first Q1 run a tenth quicker than Russell. When George bit off a bit too much in Turn 7 and ran the right-front into the gravel on his second run, the game was surely up. But no-one told him and, somehow, he kept his boot in, minimised the time loss and scrabbled across the line 0.09sec ahead of Latifi and quicker than Kevin Magnussen’s Haas. Amazing.
A winner tomorrow? That’s the great thing – it’s not cut and dried. A Mercedes, probably, but you’d expect Verstappen to be a nuisance. The tyres have super-high lateral loads to contend with through Turns 6-10, where the g-force readings are approaching 6! And we are seeing track temperatures approaching 50 degrees. We are back to the hardest Pirelli compounds – C1/C2/C3 – so Silverstone 2-style blistering may not be repeated, especially with mandatory front pressures of 25psi.
But tyre management will certainly be needed and if Red Bull can pressure the Mercs to run harder than they might prefer, who knows? The other promising factor is that overtaking, generally thought to be impossible before anyone arrived, has looked feasible in the junior categories, where a strong headwind down the long straight has exaggerated the DRS effect. And, say the drivers, you can adopt different lines and follow quite closely through the last turn at Mugello unlike, say, Barcelona. I hope I’m not cursing tomorrow afternoon, but the stage looks well set.
2020 Tuscan Grand Prix qualifying results
|1||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||1min 15.144sec|
|2||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||1min 15.203sec|
|3||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1min 15.509sec|
|4||Alexander Albon||Red Bull||1min 15.954sec|
|5||Charles Leclerc||Ferrari||1min 16.270sec|
|6||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||1min 16.311sec|
|7||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||1min 16.356sec|
|8||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault||1min 16.543sec|
|9||Carlos Sainz||McLaren||1min 17.870sec|
|10||Esteban Ocon||Renault||No time|
|11||Lando Norris||McLaren||1min 16.640sec|
|12||Daniil Kvyat||AlphaTauri||1min 16.854sec|
|13||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||1min 16.854sec|
|14||Sebastian Vettel||Ferrari||1min 16.858sec|
|15||Romain Grosjean||Haas||1min 17.254sec|
|16||Pierre Gasly||AlphaTauri||1min 17.125sec|
|17||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||1min 17.220sec|
|18||George Russell||Williams||1min 17.232sec|
|19||Nicholas Latifi||Williams||1min 17.320sec|
|20||Kevin Magnussen||Haas||1min 17.348sec|