On old hard compound tyres, Valtteri was bound to get beaten up by George on fresh mediums. He’d taken pole, then dropped back to a tyre-saving distance, as you do, when he didn’t win the start. He’d been coming back at Russell when the safety car appeared. So, what, exactly, deserved the pillorying?
Coming into Abu Dhabi, Norris and team-mate Carlos Sainz were 8-8 in their individual qualifying head-to-head over the season. Lando’s lap meant that he edged that battle. For average qualifying pace over the year, disregarding Turkey, where the tyre warm-up of the intermediates skewed the picture, and Bahrain, where Norris couldn’t record a Q2 time – Sainz comes out on top by 0.03sec. Just like 2019, unbelievably tight!
Sainz was 0.32sec and two places further back as Albon split the team-mates with his Red Bull, but the good news for McLaren is that Carlos, in keeping with the top three and Leclerc’s Ferrari, managed to clear Q2 on the medium compound tyre. He will thus be able to run a longer opening stint and a guaranteed one-stopper.
Starting just 10 points behind Racing Point in that frantic battle for third in the constructors’ championship, McLaren has a real opportunity. Lance Stroll starts eighth for Racing Point on the soft compound Pirelli and poor Sergio Perez will be at the back after incurring engine penalties. Last weekend he became the first driver in F1 history to win a Grand Prix from last position on lap one. Otmar Szafnauer asking him for a repeat might be a bit much, but strong points at least, are needed.
Albon’s Q3 time was within 0.33sec of Verstappen’s pole, the closest he has been to Max since Monza, nine races ago. But will it be enough for him to retain his seat?
“We’re in the fortunate position where talented drivers like Perez and Hulkenberg don’t have other options, so that gives us the luxury of being able to take time to ensure that we make the right decision and give Alex every opportunity,” Horner explains. “What we’re most conscious of moving forward is, in order to take on Mercedes, we can’t do it one-legged: from a strategic point of view and from a development point of view. That’s what we have to analyse with the data we have, which will be complete this weekend.”
Bearing that in mind, it’s important for Albon to join in the fight tomorrow although, to do so, he may be compromised by that inability to make it through Q2 on the yellow-walled tyre.
The average qualifying gap between Verstappen and Albon over the season has been just over half a second. Between team-mates, only the margin between Russell and Latifi (just over 0.6sec) is bigger. But the rest aren’t up against Verstappen. Just to keep things in some sort of perspective, the rivalry between Senna and Prost was painted in Ali/Frazier or Borg/McEnroe terms, but the average qualifying gap between them at McLaren in 1989, was 0.88sec…