F1 – Russian GP – Qualifying
Privet, MiniFans! We’re in Russia, in one of those circuits that could be described as Mercedes property. In the last six years, they have only failed twice to score a first place in qualifying – both “stolen” by Ferrari drivers – and not once in the race. It is more of their race to lose than others’ race to win, specially for Hamilton, who has won four out of six, even having achieved just one pole position. The biggest question for qualifying wasn’t who would be occupying the first row, but who would be sitting right behind the former silver arrows.
As usual, Russell was the first one to get out in Q1, trying to keep his streak of 9-0 in qualifying when compared to his teammate. He did it in medium tyres rather than softs, maybe to try something in the car, but he didn’t complete his timed lap. When everyone was on track, we started seeing something more common in MotoGP but that has made its way into F1 as well: erased lap times due to exceeding track limits. Teams were scattered around the timing tower, with teammates far away from each other, and almost everyone came back out for one last lighting round. Vettel got buried into the elimination round as times improved and saved himself when the checkered flag was already out, but both him and his teammate didn’t look too good, barely making it through. By his part, Russell managed his sixth Q2 of the season, once again defeating his teammate by a large margin. The eliminated drivers in Q1 were Grosjean (P16), Giovinazzi (P17), Magnussen (P18), Latifi (P19) and Raikkonen (P20).
Q2 presented the same question as it always does: who would dare to put medium tyres on? Would anyone even think about it? One team did. Mercedes, whose gap to the rest was so big, didn’t need to think about it. However, Verstappen fitted them on his car as well, this being a riskier play yet still having the safety net of a set of soft tyres waiting for him in his box just in case. If this wasn’t enough, Pérez reported some drops of rain from clouds that seemed too distant to create a nuisance for the teams. One stellar lap by Ricciardo awarded him a good enough time not to need to go out again, as well as a first place due to Hamilton having his lap time erased for exceeding the track limits. He’d hold on to his privileged position until times were scraped for Q3.
Almost in line with the last two races, a red flag came out due to an accident. Vettel ran out of grip thanks to clipping the orange sausage kerb and smashed into a wall, not allowing Hamilton to complete his lap and leaving him without a time. The British driver was reassured that he’d have enough time to do one last try, but he wouldn’t be the only one doing it, so Mercedes was faced with needing to do what they don’t usually do: fight for space and down to the line for a place in Q3, as well as using soft tyres to make sure all of it wouldn’t compromise a future battle for pole. Hamilton was told to pass cars but wasn’t able to and even went off track briefly in his try. Both Red Bulls had more than enough time, but the rest of the cars were trailing behind Gasly and, while Hamilton barely made it, Sainz and Pérez didn’t. The British driver managed to get himself into Q3, kicking Leclerc out, but gave himself the same strategy as the rest of the cars, with the notable exceptions of his teammate and Verstappen, who, despite being the first in line, slowed down enough in the last corner not to improve his own time to ensure he’d start with the yellow rimmed tyres on Sunday. The eliminated drivers in Q2 were Leclerc (P11), Kvyat (P12), Stroll (P13), Russell (P14) and Vettel (P15).
Not going out for a second time in Q2, Ricciardo was the first one to settle comfortably in first in Q3, painting all sectors in purple, until the Mercedes drivers came along and swept him out to the second row. Second place did seem reachable for others, as Bottas was further away from Hamilton than he was from the rest of the cars. The second run was kicked off early, as teams may have been wary of another red flag, but Versappen wasn’t dragged along and did his own thing. Times were mostly improved, but the surprise came out right at the end, when Pérez scored fourth and Verstappen split the Mercedes drivers, getting a front row start.
Mercedes did get their pole position, but it wasn’t a path of roses. Hamilton needed to fight down to the line in order to make it into the top ten for his 96th career pole due to Vettel’s accident and subsequent red flag. Meanwhile, Verstappen was stellar, managing one last lap with a bit of a tow that propelled him into second place, bumping Bottas out of it. When it came to the midfielders, Pérez came out on top, despite Ricciardo being the favourite due to his performance in the free practices, by a handful of hundredths. Ferrari disappointed once again, not a single of their cars making it into Q3 and one of them crashing out of Q2. We are left to see whether tomorrow will be yet another Mercedes victory.