Mercedes and Red Bull Racing led the way still as Racing Point dropped out but Pierre Gasly outshone most with fourth in F1 Emilia Romagna GP qualifying.

As the lights perched above Imola flicked red, and cars followed one another across the line, Mercedes once more emerged with one of their cars atop the timing sheets, albeit this time, Valtteri Bottas, for the F1 Emilia Romagna GP. In many ways, it was redemption for the Finn, whose promising efforts to secure pole in Portugal failed. His success at Imola this weekend was doubly impressive when one accounts for the lack of any Friday running.

The Mercedes driver acknowledged this challenge, as he discussed his progression of his laps across the three segments of Qualifying. “Obviously I didn’t have much experience of this track but once we got down to the qualifying session and the laps keep getting faster and faster and you really start to appreciate this track more and more and towards the end of qualifying when you are flat out on this track it’s really beautiful and enjoyable to drive,” said Bottas.

“A proper old school F1 track and that’s what we all like. The last lap it was good enough. I think no one, I doubt they had perfect laps with the short amount of practice and having to be on the limit just in one day, getting the rhythm quickly. But it was good enough and definitely better than the first lap I had in Q3. There were a few places on track where I had to make big gains and luckily most of the losses I managed to minimise and the areas I was quick I tried to make them even better,” Bottas said.

The 31-year-old set his fastest Q2 lap on the medium tyre, as did many in the top ten. He explains that the limited running they were afforded on Saturday morning indicated that the yellow-marked compound would be preferable. “For sure it’s unknown,” Bottas began. “We got some long runs in practice. I think quite a lot of cars had graining on the soft tyre. That’s one of the reasons we qualified on the medium tyres. That felt OK. For surer there are questions marks but at least the starting point for the race is good.”

It was one of only a handful of occasions on which the 9-time F1 race winner has managed to eclipse his teammate Lewis Hamilton for pole in 2020, Bottas having done so in only the dying stages of Qualifying. The Brit, charging towards a seventh championship, was happy to have come second, despite being edged out by his teammate, for whom he had plenty of praise. “I think I was fine,” said Hamilton. “Valtteri did a great job, so ultimately in Q3 both laps weren’t that great, to be honest. The first lap was OK and the second one was pretty poor. To only have been that far away, considering, it’s not so bad.”

Already during the day Hamilton felt the F1 track is narrow and it could be a procession on Sunday. He felt qualifying was key at Imola but he hopes for a surprise. Qualifying is/was important, it’s perhaps a little bit like Monaco in that sense,” he said. “I think the strategy as well. It’s going to be interesting tomorrow. There are usually only a couple of options. It won’t be as good as the last race in terms of the opportunities to overtake, places that you can follow. But, as I said, maybe we’ll be surprised.”

Behind the pairing, who’ve collectively scored 13 of the 13 pole positions made available to them thus far in 2020, finished ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, just as they often have in this season. The Dutchman suffered from a power unit problem related to a spark plug, which relegated him to the garage for a portion of Q2. The mechanics were able to fix the problem, and he was subsequently sent out onto the F1 track. A solid lap helped him into Q3, but further hurdles arose when he struggled with the management of his tyres.

Overall, it proved an affair that would leave the 23-year-old feeling dissatisfied. “Of course, the bodywork had to go off and I think the mechanics did a very good job to fix my car but it ruined, a bit, my qualifying because you have to go out on a Medium, try to nail the lap,” said Verstappen. “We just managed to go through, of course, on that, but yeah, the reference was a bit off. The first lap then in Q3, the tyres were too cold because I was a bit in the middle of the train.

“I never really got into a nice rhythm where you know that, ‘OK, I have a bit of time left here, I can push a bit harder’ It was all a bit messy so, even in Q3, the last lap, I was, ‘well, I think we could have done a bit better here if we just had a smoother qualifying. But if you have that in Q2 and you have to qualify on a different tyre as well, mid-way through then yeah, it’s not great. I didn’t expect, of course, to beat them in qualifying.

“I just wanted to be a bit closer, make it a bit more exciting – but today, it was just very tricky and I never really found that rhythm that you get throughout qualifying, that you know ‘OK we put a new tyre-set on and I know where to find my lap time’. I was just still learning to go faster. Bit of a shame but still, P3, so back in my seat!” Verstappen continued, referencing his frequent appearances in the position.

He agreed with Hamilton with regards to overtaking as he hopes he can get more from the engine, which he felt was track specific. His teammate Alexander Albon struggled equally, encountering a spin and was disaster with track limits, but ultimately finished sixth. Despite a challenging day, it is a position from which he believes he can find success.

“It’s very tight out there and just one tenth would have put me fourth,” said Albon. “Overall, it was not a bad qualifying and we can have a good race from sixth. The session started off quite difficult but then it just got better and better. I got track limits with my first Q3 lap so that was deleted and with the final Q3 lap there’s always a bit of a risk versus reward factor so I think if I had a lap time already on the board I would have risked and pushed harder, but the time was not too far off in the end.”

Joining Verstappen in the top five, was the surprise inclusion of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, who drove a relatively uncompetitive AT01 to fourth place. It was his second fourth place of the day after he finished in the same position in the lone F1 practice session. The Frenchman jubilantly explained that a good set-up choice from the get-go allowed him to secure such a result – although he felt the pre-season test wasn’t the full factor.

“With only an hour and a half of practice, we had a lot of things to go through, but the car felt good from the first lap and we had a pretty good balance straight away,” said Gasly. “We did a few long runs just to get an idea on the tyre degradation for Sunday. We could extract also a bit more performance at the end with the soft tyres. We seemed quite competitive and we went into Qualifying with a positive attitude.

“I put in some strong Quali laps and equalled my best Qualifying in F1 – P4 is pretty cool and I’m happy to do it here in Imola. We seem to be fast in Italy! We’re starting in a strong position behind the two Mercedes and Max, so we need to keep the position at the start and go from there. Looking at the timesheets it’s going to be a tight battle and I’m excited about it,” Gasly said as teammate Daniil Kvyat also found himself in the Top 10.

While he was happy with his laps but his stance on the punitive measures levied against any drivers who have a track limits infraction was a strong one. “We had to be very careful about the track limits, I still prefer the old school tracks where you’re penalized for running wide by gravel, but once I got to Q3 I finally got on the limit and was able to push harder,” he said. “We don’t need these white lines.

“We just need old school gravel traps and you go off and you just go off, without all this ‘cross white line’, ‘don’t cross white line’ bullshit. It makes me quite upset because it kills a lot racing. And it just kills such a great track as well. That’s the problem.” Up ahead of him in fifth was Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who considered his one-lap performance the best of his F1 season thus far. The Australian also had praise aplenty for Imola.

“I’m very happy with the result,” said Ricciardo. “We found speed as the session went on. I’d honestly say it was my best qualifying lap this season. This track is amazing. Qualifying fifth was also super important for track position as we can have a really good battle in the race tomorrow since the group around us is very close. If we make a strong start, then we could have a very solid race.”

The other Renault, driven by Esteban Ocon, ended up 12th in the session. The Frenchman was disappointed with his result, particularly so because he anticipated a higher finishing position after showing promise early on. He said his Q2 lap wasn’t good enough. At Ferrari, meanwhile, Charles Leclerc represented the Italian team well at the third of their home races for 2020, qualifying a positive P7. The Monegasque, though, was not wholly satisfied with this attempt, which he says was hindered by lacking balance in his SF1000.

He also projects a race in which overtaking is a rarity. “We struggled quite a bit with the balance of the car and I am not really satisfied with my lap and the way I drove in Q3, but in the end we got P7, which is not terrible, but probably we expected something better,” said Leclerc. “Everyone is very closely matched but looking at the gap to P4 it’s disappointing to see we are three places down and it’s going to be difficult to overtake.

“We are starting on a set of soft tyres that has already done two laps in Q2, but after the first stint things should be fine,” he said, having beaten out his Ferrari F1 teammate Sebastian Vettel by a considerable margin. The German did not progress to Q3, instead qualifying in 14th. Though he was satisfied with his laps, he acknowledged that this was an underperformance. “I was reasonably happy with my laps, but obviously we were not quick enough,” he said.

“In qualifying I was happier with the feeling of the car, I was a bit more comfortable than this morning and I tried to squeeze everything out of the package. I was taking a few more risks and for this reason I went wide in the chicane and in the end we lost one position to the track limits rule,” he said. “It will be important to look after the tyres and then we will see. I think we will be aiming for a one-stop race.”

Vettel might have come P15, but for Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, who – along with his teammate Sergio Perez – underperformed. Neither of the pairing contested Q3, with Perez coming especially close but not having the pace as he came P11. The Mexican theorized that a set up geared towards race running hurt his efforts.

“I’m disappointed to be starting in P11, especially because the margins out there in qualifying were so tight and just a hundredth would have meant a place in Q3,” said Perez. “But on the positive side, I’d rather start in P11 than P10. It means we have a free tyre choice and that may turn out to be an advantage for us. I think with hindsight, we probably set the car up more towards the race and that compromised us in qualifying.

“But hopefully that means we will have a strong car in the race. We need to move up the field and score points because it’s such a close fight in the championship,” he said, while a disappointed Stroll said more of the same, only adding that a lap time deletion in Q2 made things doubly challenging.

Also with a sub-par day was McLaren, whose drivers wound up in ninth and tenth after their campaign. Of the two, Lando Norris – who came ninth – said that the day could have been better, had he been able to wrestle the car around in Qualifying, after promising steps forward in the practice session. The Brit adds that a result of better than eighth would have been nonetheless unlikely as the cars ahead felt much quicker than them.

Sainz, meanwhile, explained that his poor performance can be attributed to persistent issues with car set-up. “After a positive free practice session this morning, we hoped for a better result because the car was feeling good on track,” he said. “However, we didn’t seem to be quite there in quali. My first run in Q1 was a bit compromised and I had to run two sets. From there it just felt like we were playing catch-up in the midfield.

“Having just one set for Q3 wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t enough to put ourselves higher in the order. We struggled more than expected and we need to analyse why. However, we still got both cars into Q3 and there’s everything to play for the race. We’ll do our best to find some performance overnight and hopefully score good points after a strong F1 race.”

Here’s how F1 Emilia Romagna GP panned out