F1 – Sakhir GP – Qualifying

Marhabaan, MiniFans! It’s not the first time we experience two consecutive racing weekends in the same circuit this year, but we’re seeing a change. The layout has transformed to be just the outer track, giving us a very short circuit with a lap time of under one minute. But that’s not the only new thing: We’re learning what a weekend without Hamilton is for the first time since 2006 and all it entails. Pressure falls onto Bottas, who is expected to win whenever his teammate can’t but hasn’t yet gotten a first place this weekend until now, rather than his teammate, George Russell, promoted from Williams for the time being.

During free practices, Russell, who’s been sat in Hamilton’s car, proved that he’s not afraid of the task he’s been given, topping two out of three. In the first qualifying run, the other two new seat inhabitants, Fittipaldi and Aitken, were among the starting pack to get out, in order to try and get as many laps under their belts as possible. In a show of being pretty sure about the five drivers who would be dropped, some drivers did not only use mediums, but also hards, taking advantage of the ridiculously short circuit and the tiny differences between compounds, which can be very easily compensated by car excellence and driver skill.

Verstappen sat himself at the top of the timing tower very early on, not being even breathed on by anyone until the last handful of minutes. Three attempts at a fast lap were possible thanks to the sub-minute time needed, and everyone’s last try was done with soft tyres which, added to the improving track, shook up the order and placed Bottas in first, while Red Bull took a bet on not getting Albon out, something that worked almost by pure luck, as he was the last of the ones who made it to Q2. The eliminated drivers in Q1 were Magnussen (P16), Latifi (P17), Aitken (P18), Raikkonen (P19) and Fittipaldi (P20).

All the traffic problems that had been mostly avoided in Q1 seemed to come alive in Q2, from the moment in which Norris had to pretty much stop completely at the exit of the pit lane in order not to mess up Sainz’s fast lap, creating a small queue behind him. Once they were spread on the track, it visibly subsided, but showed teams they needed to be more careful than usual when it came to taking their drivers out. Just a few cars dared to use medium tyres for at least their first attempt: Mercedes, also known as the ones who always start off with mediums, Ferrari, in a little bit of a risky move, and Verstappen, but not his teammate. More teams decided to try the yellow tyres, seeing as the differences were relatively tiny between compounds.

Pérez launched himself into first and Sainz into third, splitting the Mercedes cars. Ferrari finally realised the medium tyres wouldn’t really give them a chance at Q3, at lest with Vettel. The first five cars offered a beautiful sight for fans, as the reduced timing tower, which only shows up to tenths, displayed a difference of 0.0 seconds from first to fifth. In the last attempt, only Mercedes kept their medium tyres, everyone else seeing the risk of not making it to the last session and thus deciding to use softs, but it still wasn’t enough for them. The eliminated drivers in Q2 were Ocon (P11), Albon (P12), Vettel (P13), Giovinazzi (P14) and Norris (P15).

Mercedes were the first ones to head out in Q3, barely after the clock had started ticking, with used tyres that gave the impression that they’d go to three attempts. Positions started to settle very early on, but differences were so small for the first places that we’d need to go to down to the line in order to be sure of the final grid. Verstappen, who had already proven he could beat the Mercedes in this track, was waiting in his car for his last attempt, but having used his new sets already, unlike Leclerc, who looked like he knew he had given it all already with no new tyres left and was out of his own Ferrari, chatting with the wall of engineers.

The last attempt didn’t change the positions of most of the drivers, only giving boosts to Alpha Tauri, who only had one fresh set of softs for each of their drivers and fitted them for the last lap. Bottas grasped a pole position that would have only been surprising had Hamilton been on track, while his brand-new box mate finished in second. Leclerc, even with just one fast lap at the beginning of Q3, managed to snag fourth, while Pérez is the one in the fight for fourth in the championship in the best beginning position for tomorrow, fifth, just two places in front of Ricciardo, who’s currently leading the battle for best midfielder in the championship leaderboard.

In a weekend where we couldn’t bet on Hamilton ruling over the field once again, the responsibility of doing so fell on Bottas, the one expected to be first whenever his teammate is not able to. And he did just so, barely twenty-six thousands of a second faster than his new teammate for the time being, Russell. The British drivers has stepped into his idol’s boots with splendid results, adapting to the car very quickly even under all the pressure he’s under. He’s seeing himself in a new environment and has done pretty well until now, but it’s the race setting that will be the moment when we’ll see how well he can adapt, as he’ll have to battle the likes of Verstappen, among others, right from the start.