The Saturday in F1 Spanish GP weekend seemed straightforward at the front but cautions for the race remains while midfield saw some surprises.

On Saturday of the F1 Spanish GP weekend, Mercedes were once again untouched by rivals, as Lewis Hamilton secured pole from his teammate at the Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya. It was his 92nd time as the Briton further extending his lead on the all-time pole count on the road to his seemingly-inevitable 100th.

Hamilton was thrilled with his achievement, it being one that was very nearly stripped from him by Valtteri Bottas as the Finn charged through his final lap, improving sector after sector right until the last one of the lap, in which he lost the advantage he had built up.

“It’s definitely been a good Saturday. I’m smiling under this,” said Hamilton, pointing suggestively at his mask. “But it had been a really big challenge this weekend for us all – the physical demands of this track, being that we’re faster than ever before, but more so just managing these tyres in the temperatures. It’s very, very hot out there and as you can see different people were trying different things on out laps.

“Also there is always a bit of a gust in the afternoon always here in Barcelona, so it makes for quite a tricky session but overnight progressed forwards rather than backwards, which is always a good thing. Each first lap was strong, which I was happy with. The one in Q3 was solid, but I felt like I could improve, but I wasn’t able to do it on the second lap. Fortunately neither did the strong dude next to me [Bottas].

“He’s keeping me honest and it’s obviously very close between us and so every millisecond counts. I’m really just incredibly grateful to the guys for continuing to push. It’s not easy to do weekend in, weekend out. I’m constantly impressed by the open-mindedness and the things we are doing. But it is going to be tough when we get to the race. The scenario is different. Over a single lap we seem to have the edge over the Red Bulls but this F1 weekend we seem to be pretty much on par on race pace, so it’s going to be a tough battle with Max,” summed up Hamilton.

Of his failed attempt at snatching F1 pole from Hamilton, Bottas said that he was annoyed, but he conceded that his adversary got the better of him today thanks – in part – to his consistency in the third sector of the diverse lap. “I was trying to get the pole and it was always going to be pretty close, I think between me and Lewis at least, and I knew it was going to be about milliseconds in the end,” he said.

“Sector 1 and 2 started to feel pretty good, so I think by Sector 3. I have to say since this morning Sector 3 was a bit of a problematic Turn 10, Turn 12 was a bit of an issue for me in terms of balance and finding the best way around it, because every day here, with the wind, with the track temperatures different but it was getting better and better in the qualifying – just not quite good enough. I think Lewis was pretty consistent in Sector 3 and he managed to get a good lap in Q3.

“Of course, it’s annoying for me but I have to look at the big picture. Still starting on the front row, really strong team performance, which always I’m really proud of. And still, there’s all the opportunities,” summed up Bottas. On the not improvement made on the final lap, both the Mercedes F1 drivers had no real answers as they felt they missed few tenths here and there, which is what resulted in no overall gain.

Rounding out a familiar top three, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was happy with his lap, as he felt the car – which was, crucially, improved in his eyes – was competitive in the session.  “I mean it seems like I have a subscription on P3,” he said. “I think I’ve been P3 the whole weekend. It was alright. I tried of course, to be as close as possible.

“Also, pretty happy with my lap. I think we extracted the most out of the car. We can’t complain really. I think the car was pretty competitive. Of course there are still areas where we can do a better job – but we are definitely improving the car, which is good,” said Verstappen, who has already been tipped to be the favorite for the race by Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, of all people.

The team’s RB16 is held to a high esteem when it comes to pace on longer runs – particularly in the heat – and Verstappen would certainly agree with this assessment of their pace, at least for this weekend.”I felt very happy in the long run, with the balance of the car and the wear of the tyres as well,” he said. “Of course, I hope that I can be close to them and put the pressure on.”

The Dutchman along with the Mercedes drivers said the soft tyres generally performed well with no blisters and so no one opted for the medium in Q2, even a risk taker like the Red Bull. Verstappen’s teammate Alexander Albon, meanwhile, had a better Saturday – the first of its kind since the first Grand Prix of F1 2020 in Austria. The Thai driver was relatively satisfied with his running, but admitted that the going was rough at certain points.

“It was OK, just trying to get the tyre to last to be honest, it was quite tricky here,” he said. “With the weather and the heat, it’s quite tricky, the sector three, if you have a snap of oversteer in sector two for instance, that’s kind of your sector three gone, which is the charm of the tyres. It wasn’t easy, I’d say.

“Even in the last run, we just tried to calm the car down a bit to give the tyres a bit more life in sector three, but then I just missed out a little bit in terms of overall balance. It was an OK session. But obviously I wanted a bit more than that,” summed up Albon. Among the leading group  sat Racing Point, who will line up P4 and P5 for Sunday’s F1 race, with Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll respectively.

The former of the pair – who had just returned from a two-race hiatus – felt rewarded after the trying session under the Barcelona sun. “I’m pleased with that comeback,” said Perez. “The conditions have been interesting, very hot, very windy as well, and the final sector, changing direction through qualifying. It wasn’t an easy session out there, but I think all in all, a great result for the team.

“It felt good, but you have to do so much management with the tyre, even in qualifying. It’s all about the management you do for the final sector, try to have the tyre in a nice condition. If you push too hard in one corner, it’s just very hot out there. It was windy into 12, so the corner before was pretty hard. I tried to be very precise through there, I think I managed to be precise, because the lap before, I lost it a bit into the entry of 14. I managed to clean it up and get it altogether,” said Perez.

When asked about the possibility of a podium, Perez adds: “We don’t quite have the pace to beat the Red Bull, and especially the Mercedes, but who knows? If we are able to get ahead in lap one, who knows.” And while he looks forward in hopes of an opportunistic podium, his teammate Stroll looks backwards, threatened by Albon – a driver whose race pace seems to better that of the Racing Points.

“I expect Alex to have good pace,” said Stroll. “He demonstrated that last weekend at Silverstone. We’ll just have to run our race, get a good start, and from there optimise the strategy. That’s all we can focus on.” Aside the top half, McLaren’s in-team fight saw Carlos Sainz finally edging out Lando Norris for seventh.

Sainz was helped by an engine change to resolve his cooling issues after a chassis change did not do the trick. He said that they were to bring the new PU at Spa but brought it forward as they were lacking performance as well. “It was definitely a good change,” he said. “I’d like to thank the team and everyone involved in this decision because it was, I guess, not an easy decision to try and bring the power unit forward one race.

“We were planning to use it in Spa. But in the end, we decided to use it here because the other engine was giving us cooling issues, but also a bit of performance issues, and because of that, I think we did the right change, we did the right thing to to put it here this weekend, and since FP3 honestly we picked up a fair bit of performance and reliability and the cooling problem is also now done. So I’m happy with the change, and relieved, to be honest, because it’s given us a lot of headaches lately.”

Norris was satisfied, although, both felt they could have beaten Albon. For the F1 race, they feel that they can challenge Racing Points. Aside the McLaren, AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly rued some mistakes on his final lap to be only 10th as his Q3 promotion meant Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was knocked out in Q2 again despite a chassis change.

“First sector was OK, but then in the middle sector the car started feel more and more nervous,” explained Vettel. “I struggled in particular in Turn 7, losing the rear halfway, so it was difficult to judge how much speed to carry in. Also Turn 5 was very tricky for me this afternoon. So I think that’s the middle sector, and in the last sector, it got better towards the end, but still very tricky to find the right balance. It was one of the better sessions this weekend, but still obviously not good enough.

“The car performance was up and down to be honest. There are some things I can’t really put an answer to. But I’m trying to do everything I can, and ignore all the things that might not be right, and do the best that I can. That’s all I can do at the moment,” summed up Vettel. Teammate Charles Leclerc made it into Q3 but was only ninth as he did not feel right with the car for the whole of Saturday.

“It just didn’t have enough front end to rotate the car,” said Leclerc. “We’ve lost quite a bit of time because of this. It’s something that we regularly have with this car, struggling with the front in mid-corner.” For one Ferrari-powered F1 team, though, the result achieved was a positive one, as, for Alfa Romeo Racing, Kimi Raikkonen got his car into Q2 after a string of dismal results. The Finn was happy at the day’s end, as he explained everything went right for him and his team.

The story of Saturday was an entirely different one, though, for Haas, who – after an incredibly strong Friday – dropped off in pace, although not highly unexpected. For Romain Grosjean, this mysterious pace loss was attributed to overnight changes made to the car that didn’t turn out as expected – they had to change the F1 engine due to leak.

“I think we were in line with what we normally do,” said Grosjean, who was 17th behind teammate Kevin Magnussen. “The pace was real, we had to change a lot of parts on the car, and this morning the car didn’t feel the same. The boys worked until 4 AM, so I really wanted to give them something good, but my good front-end was gone.”

Magnussen seemed confident of making it into Q2 but he ended up making too many mistakes. Apart from them, surprisingly, Renault F1 Team, too, were down the order with both cars being knocked out in Q2, and even being split by Raikkonen. This, after strong pace at Silverstone, and good showings in earlier practice sessions.

They did not have any direct answers to losing out as the pack was closely matched in the end. “It was a shame that it was so close out there and we only have thirteenth place to show for it,” said Ricciardo. “When you miss out by such a little margin, it’s a shame as it could be the difference between four spots on the grid. It was a clean lap in Q2, but other teams were able to find a little bit more.

“We have to find a way in the F1 race and we’ll be pushing as best as we can. It will be hard for overtaking, but we’ll try. It’s going to be hot, the tyres are going to have a workout and there could be some opportunities on strategy for the race. I’m still optimistic for points.” Teammate Esteban Ocon recovered well after FP3 shunt but like Ricciardo didn’t have enough legs to make it into Q3.

Here’s how qualifying in F1 Spanish GP panned out