Hamilton's 'beautiful' lap lands pole but stewards investigate again: 2021 Qatar GP qualifying

F1

Mercedes looked to be on top again as Lewis Hamilton claimed pole for the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix, while second-place Max Verstappen faces another stewards' investigation after qualifying

Lewis Hamilton in rainbow helmet at the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix

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Nineteen down, three to go in one of the most absorbing world championship fights in motorsport history. Coming to Qatar we’d gone from a scenario where the leading two were split by milliseconds, to one where one of them was able to start at the back and finish at the front.

Red Bull was highly sceptical about the Mercedes straightline speeds in Brazil. Mercedes hit back with a request for review into Max Verstappen’s driving practices at Turn 4, ultimately refused.

In the pre-event media conferences, things were getting personal between Christian Horner and Toto Wolff.

Why had Mercedes requested a review?

Wolff: “It’s the tiniest of margins that could make a difference at the end. Max has lost points with crashes that he wasn’t entirely responsible for and, on the other side, we lost some points, for example the Spa race, which shouldn’t have been as it was.

“So, you fight every single point. We didn’t expect to gain anything but it’s more about the principle. We just wanted a judgement on that and then to adapt, if necessary, for the last few races. It’s really important to understand what’s on and what’s not on, because we don’t want this championship decided by a highly controversial situation in the stewards’ room.”

Toto Wolff, Mercedes 2021

Pressure. What pressure? Wolff dismissed suggestions he was feeling the heat of the title race

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Horner came back with: “We’ve worked super-hard to get into this position. It’s the first time Mercedes has been challenged in the hybrid era. It’s interesting to see how people react under pressure. It’s by far the most intense, political title fight we’ve been involved in. Does our car comply with the rules? Absolutely. Do we have concerns about the gains in straight line speed we have seen since Budapest, but which have been exponential in the last couple of races? Absolutely.”

You wondered whether the war of words between the pair was actually a subtle way of deflecting some of the pressure from the title protagonists themselves, in the manner of an Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger. Beneath it all, things hadn’t broken down completely.

“I think relationship and respect are two different things,” Horner opined. “There is respect for everything that Mercedes has done and everything that Lewis Hamilton has done, but I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto. I don’t need to kiss his arse. There are a few other team principals that might, but from my perspective we’re fighting for the Constructors’ World Championship for the first time in seven years, so that intensifies it.

“Am I going to be spending Christmas with Toto? Probably not, unless he’s in panto this year. I might take the kids…

“A shame….” smiled Wolff at the prospect of a Christian-free Yuletide.

Sparks from Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes in practice for the Qatar Grand Prix

Sparks fly from Hamilton’s Mercedes but Bottas set the pace in early practice

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When the action got underway it was clear that on F1’s first visit to Losail, first used for MotoGP in 2004, Mercedes was still a formidable force. Valtteri Bottas topped the opening day of practice with Pierre Gasly a superb second and Verstappen third, just under a tenth up on Hamilton.

Bottas was highly complimentary about the simulation work done back at Brackley, which had enabled him to put the car down on the track and require minimal change between practice sessions. Hamilton, meanwhile, was suffering from a stomach bug and was at the track until midnight Friday trying to decide which way to head with his set-up.

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“Bottas is looking pretty sharp,” Horner admitted, before getting back to his straightline speed theme. “There has been exponential growth in the Mercedes speeds in the last two races; it was 14km/h better than us in Mexico and 27km/h in Brazil. Since Hungary there’s been a step change which is getting bigger. They may have a clever solution with their rear wing, the question is, is it legal?

“The FIA is under pressure with more focus on them than at any time in the last eight years. They have to try to assure that we have a level playing field. We can’t go and prod a wing – that costs us 50 grand… The FIA has the ability to check all aspects of the car and that’s their job. We’re not as concerned about this race as Jeddah and the revised Abu Dhabi, where there’s a massive emphasis on straightline speed.”

In response to the events of the last couple of weeks, the FIA was indeed planning a different load test to try to ensure that Mercedes was not managing to make the main plane deflect under load with the DRS shut, to dump some drag.

Lewis Hamilton in qualifying for the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix

“Beautiful” lap sees Hamilton starting on pole

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None of this, however, should detract from a superb qualifying lap from Hamilton which gave him just his second pole in the last 16 races. On a fast, flowing circuit, Hamilton’s 1min 20.827sec lap was a tenth quicker than Verstappen could manage in sectors one and three, and two-tenths quicker in sector two.

“My last lap was beautiful and the medium / high speed corners are just great to drive,” an enthusiastic Hamilton pointed out.

The gap to Verstappen was actually the biggest margin in any dry qualifying session this year but the straightline speed figures between the two leading teams were pretty comparable.

“Red Bull seem to have gained some speed,” Toto Wolff said.

“No,” smiled Verstappen, “I think they’ve lost speed… My last lap was pretty decent but for whatever reason we just seem to be lacking a bit of pace. You can see that because Checo [Sergio Perez] didn’t even make it into Q3.”

Sparks fly from Red Bull of Sergio Perez in Qatar GP qualifying

Perez couldn’t make it through to the final part of qualifying despite running the soft tyres

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Indeed the Mexican did not, despite using the soft compound Pirelli in Q2 while his team-mate and the two Mercedes all progressed on the medium compound as Pirelli brought its hardest C1/C2/C3 compounds to Qatar.

In the circumstances, Verstappen had wrung everything out of the Red Bull to put it P2, ahead of Bottas, although in so doing may not have done himself any favours given that at a dusty venue with no support races, he may have considerably worse traction off the start.

After his fine opening day, Bottas didn’t manage to get his tyres into the right window for Turn 1 on his Q3 hot laps and qualified a couple of tenths shy of Verstappen.

“Still,” he said, “the grip should be good on the clean side and we’ve got two cars against Max, so hopefully we can do something.”

Pierre Gasly looks out from his crash helmet

Gasly qualified fourth on one of his “top five” tracks

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It’s probably fair to say that the drivers were not expecting to be wowed by Losail but, in fact, all loved it, nobody more so than Pierre Gasly, who qualified his AlphaTauri fourth for the fourth time this year.

“I wasn’t expecting it but I’d put it in my top five tracks,” he enthused. “You’re always doing something and I was really happy with the car balance.”

Gasly qualified just three-hundredths ahead of an inspired Fernando Alonso, meaning that the battle for fifth place in the constructors’ championship between AlphaTauri and Alpine will start further up the grid than the battle for third place comprising Ferrari and McLaren! Gasly’s second Q3 run was even quicker but he didn’t get to complete it, losing his front wing over a kerb – for the fourth time this year – and suffering a punctured right front in the final sector. That brought out double-waved yellows, which could yet have significant consequences

Alonso was another happy man: “Some track layouts are better than others and this one suits us. And with qualifying later the track is cooler and you can really drive the car and not have to save the tyres. We have to maximise at this race. Pierre is P4 but we are on the clean side, so let’s see. Behind us, Carlos [Sainz] and Perez qualified on the medium, so they will be coming and we may have to defend, but we’ll give it everything.”

Charles Leclerc qualifying for the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix

Leclerc was left adrift in qualifying

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Although the momentum has swung firmly in Ferrari’s favour in the third-place battle over the last few races, the margin now at 31.5 points, Sainz says it’s not as clear-cut as that, pointing out that, in Mexico, Daniel Ricciardo had been ahead of both McLarens before his Turn 1 incident with Bottas and that in Brazil, Lando Norris was potentially ahead of both red cars at the start had he not clipped Carlos.

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Norris did a strong job to qualify the first McLaren 0.06sec behind Alonso on the soft compound Pirelli while Sainz, a tenth slower on the mediums, might expect to prevail in the race.

Backing up their respective team mates, Yuki Tsunoda and Esteban Ocon qualified the second AlphaTauri and Alpine eighth and ninth respectively, with Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin completing the top 10.

So, what of Charles Leclerc? Some nine-tenths away from Sainz on the medium tyre after the first Q2 runs, the self-critical Monégasque was left scratching his head. “Honestly guys, I have no clue why…” A switch to the soft tyre for his second run helped, but he was still 0.22sec shy of the medium tyre time with which Sainz had just squeaked through into Q3 with, Carlos admitting that it had been close enough to almost give him heart failure.

Daniel Ricciardo, however, was in even more trouble than Leclerc for pace, the pair of them starting 13th and 14th tomorrow.

Max Verstappen crosses the line at Qatar past stopped Pierre Gasly

Verstappen crossed the line for his final lap while double yellow flags were being waved for stricken Gasly

Florent Gooden / DPPI

That may not be the full story. Just over two and a half hours after the end of qualifying came notification that Verstappen has been summoned to appear before race stewards at 1pm local time tomorrow for allegedly not respecting the waved yellow flags prompted by debris from the Gasly’s AlphaTauri…

This could be very bad news for Verstappen. In Mexico 2019, Max lost his pole and suffered a three-place grid drop when found guilty of the same offence. On that occasion, there was a three-and-a-half hour delay before any action was taken as race control availed themselves of timing information from the several mini-sectors and collected further information. Max could end up starting on the clean side of the grid after all, just four slots shy of where he wanted to be.

Sainz and Bottas have also been summoned to the stewards, accused of not respecting single-waved yellows also at the end of the session.

Drama upon drama. Losail is one of the last places you’d want a grid drop. The high-speed flowing nature of the place means that following another car closely, and hence overtaking, is likely to be fiendishly difficult. A lunge down the inside into the high-speed Turn 1 looks to be the only real feasible possibility unless your opponent runs wide somewhere.

Red Bull is hopeful that despite Merc’s speed, the high loadings generated on Pirelli’s rubber might prompt wear and bring race strategy more sharply into play. But they will still need to be somewhere close. The outcome of tomorrow’s lunchtime gathering in the stewards’ room, is crucial…