“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.