Hamilton’s move to the back meant that Verstappen started the 100km 24-lap sprint from pole with Valtteri Bottas alongside. Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly filled row two, another fine effort from the Frenchman who, for the second race in succession, outqualified both Ferraris!
Coming into the weekend, Charles Leclerc figured that McLaren might be half a tenth quicker than Ferrari here, but that’s not the way it played out on Friday, with the Maranello machines a tad quicker. But boy, was it close: Sainz, 1mi 08.826sec; Leclerc, 1min 08.960sec; Lando Norris, 1min 08.980sec; Daniel Ricciardo, 1min 09.039sec.
After tough races in Austin and Mexico, Alpine was in better shape with Fernando Alonso making it into Q3 to go 10-9 up in his personal qualifying head-to-head with Esteban Ocon, who lined up 11th.
Freedom of starting tyre for the entire grid on both Saturday and Sunday is a feature of the sprint format and it was a tough call today. Temperatures were much cooler than Friday, when many suspected that the soft compound Pirelli would not last. Of the top 10, Bottas opted for the red-walled tyre, as did Gasly, Sainz and Ocon.
Bottas took the lead at the start with soft tyres
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
Both Valtteri and Carlos received immediate payback, the Mercedes getting a better launch, arrowing down the inside of Verstappen into Turn 1. Sainz, too, made a blinder of a start, displacing Gasly and Perez through the Senna Esses and then getting up the inside of Verstappen’s Red Bull at Turn 4 when Max was slowed by a gear sync issue. At the back, Hamilton made up four places. Poor Gasly went three places in the wrong direction and Kimi Raikkonen spun.
After a few laps tracking Bottas, Verstappen, who had re-passed Sainz, started to apply pressure but found his tyres overheating the closer he got. He dropped back to gather himself for another bid later but Valtteri had it all under control, leading from start to finish and claiming his third ‘pole’ in the last four races.
The soft tyre hung on much better than expected for Sainz too, and it was a delighted Carlos who managed to hold onto his third position, resisting any advances from the medium-shod Perez Red Bull.
Hamilton (right) was already up to 16th by Turn 1
In fact, for some, a further drop in the ambient temperature actually meant a bigger struggle on the medium tyre. One such was Leclerc, who couldn’t make his fronts work and was eaten up by Norris, celebrating his 22nd birthday with sixth place. He defended hard when the McLaren went for the inside into Turn 1, but was then powerless to resist on the run into Turn 4 on lap 9.
Both men though, were gobbled up by the amazing Hamilton, who finished fifth after 24 laps, from the very back! Okay, Verstappen’s second place gave him a 21-point lead in the drivers’ championship going into tomorrow’s race, but in the constructors’ battle Mercedes doubled its one-point advantage thanks to Bottas.
Hamilton went inside, outside, left, right as he scythed through the field and brought broad grins to the faces in the Mercedes garage. “This ain’t over…” Lewis smiled afterwards, and it’s far from inconceivable that he could win tomorrow.
Hamilton’s pass on Norris for fifth was one of his best moves of the afternoon
Florent Gooden / DPPI
And that was certainly not lost on Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, after chief technical officer Adrian Newey had words with the FIA technical department about what Mercedes may or may not be doing with its rear wing. Red Bull, of course, has already had to revise its own wing, post-Baku, following a technical directive.
“We saw Lewis’s speed yesterday, so it was no great surprise,” Horner said. “But it’s pretty mind-boggling. It was in Turkey that it started to be there, when the Mercs were 14km/h quicker than we were, despite the size of wing they were running. Something must be happening because the horsepower delta to achieve that would be significant. Maybe we need another change to the rear wing test. It’s down to the FIA to police it. Lewis was 27km/h quicker than Lando when he passed him… Which is another formula.”
Bottas, Verstappen and Hamilton were in another race for pace, with Sainz and Perez almost 20sec behind after 24 laps. Behind sixth-placed Norris, Leclerc, Gasly, Ocon and Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin completed the top 10 and will line up in the front half of tomorrow’s grid.
Ricciardo could only manage 11th, ahead of Alonso, Antonio Giovinazzi, Lance Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda.
And hats-off to Nicholas Latifi who, having become the first man to outqualify George Russell in the same car in a conventional qualifying session, managed to keep next year’s Mercedes driver behind him throughout the 24-lapper. Raikkonen recovered to 18th, ahead of the Haas cars.
Bottas starts on pole for the grand prix
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
In terms of entertainment, Brazil was the best of the three sprint encounters we have witnessed in ’21. The word on the street is that we could have six of them next year, tweaked to take account of views expressed so far. Happily, it seems, the purist view that Friday qualifying should determine pole has been heeded, with the Sunday GP grid set by Friday. The tyre flexibility will stay for Saturday / Sunday and the sprint event itself will have more meaningful points, a rumoured 10 points for the winner down to a single point for 10th, giving more racing incentive. If rubber-stamped, it will be a good compromise.
And so to tomorrow. With temperatures expected to be much higher again, it’s much less likely that the soft tyre will come into play anything like as much and, of course, there will be the pit-stop strategy element as well. The Red Bull is likely to be a more effective race car in hotter conditions but Bottas’s pole position, if converted, could be a problem. If Valtteri controls the pace and gives Hamilton the opportunity to pick off the field from 10th, the win for Lewis really could still be on. For Verstappen to avoid that jeopardy, he really needs to lead at the end of the opening lap. If he does, he will likely win it. If he doesn’t, who knows?