It was a dramatic end to F1 Saudi Arabian GP qualifying as Mercedes retained its advantage over Red Bull but all to play for on Sunday.
The Saturday in F1 Saudi Arabian GP ended up in an anti-climax way after a crash for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on his final quick lap which safeguarded a pole for Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in a crucial event amid an intense title fight.
For Hamilton, it was extracting as much from FP3 to qualifying. He admits they were a bit down on one-lap pace and devised a strategy to extract the maximum. His teammate survived some engine scares to eventually make it Mercedes 1-2.
On Red Bull side, Verstappen was naturally hurt by the crash. He knew that it was a good lap but was wary of Hamilton’s time where he could have easily lost to him if he backed off. It wasn’t to be but he still starts third, although teammate Sergio Perez was only fifth. He felt the Q3 lap didn’t work out for him.
Hamilton: “I think for all of us we were naturally just pushing so hard. The track had shifted a little bit. I don’t know if it’s just the wind, but it made it so difficult with tyre temperatures, so we were having to do heavy, quick out laps to try to get these tyres working and in the right window, which was very, very odd. And yeah, very close between us all, but I think the Bulls were definitely faster today. I don’t know if we lost performance or they just gained but still I’m proud of the job that we have all done and I’m proud of the job that Valtteri has done, he nearly beat me out there.
“That was one of the most intense qualifying sessions we’ve had for a while. I’m grateful for it, even though it’s only the fifth of the year. It’s always frustrating when you I think FP3 was relatively good. I decided to not make any changes going into qualifying because most of the time when I make changes going into qualifying, nine times out of ten probably, or eight times out of ten, as soon as I get out and I start the lap I’m like ‘damn it, I wish I didn’t make that change’. This time I didn’t make a change and I was like ‘damn it, I should have made a change’.
“But, so I generally just struggled through the whole of qualifying, through Q1, really struggling to pull out the laps, get the grip from the tyres, which was something that we haven’t necessarily struggled with all week-end but way, way worse in quali, and yeah, just get my head around the fact that we were generally off. I was off. I was even behind Valtteri. So just kind of consolidating my thoughts and how I approached things and each corner and just trying to maximise. I can’t tell you how much of a knife-edge it was.
“The car was… I was struggling with the car and so, at the end, I think the first lap, the first run was so-so. I just struggled with a lot of snaps. I had that big snap in Turn Eight, and then that last lap, it was just all or nothing. So, but still, not as quick as I would have hoped to have had but it was the best that I could do. We’re here to win. That’s where all the prep has been going towards and I think no doubt they will be quick tomorrow, I think in the race. Collectively it’s about being smart and working together as a team, which I think Valtteri and we all do exceptionally well. I think also just enjoy it. It’s a night race. It’s a new track. It’s lots of unknowns but yeah, we’ll be pushing.”
Verstappen: “I arrived there and for my feeling was braking at the same point, but I had a little lock-up and I still tried to, of course, finish the lap but I clipped the wall on the exit so I couldn’t continue. Yeah, it’s extremely disappointing, of course. We had a good car in qualifying and everything seemed to be coming together. It was just hard to nail the lap, also you know in Q1 and Q2 with the traffic and stuff. In Q3 it was good but unfortunately, I couldn’t finish the lap, so extremely disappointing. I saw it was a good lap.
“I was three-tenths faster on my delta, and I thought, last corner, there might be still a bit to gain. I knew, of course, Lewis was a tenth, tenth-and-a-half ahead but I approached it like I always do in qualifying but now somehow, I just locked-up and I have to see if I actually braked later or not. For my feeling, I didn’t, but yeah, just really, like I said, just really disappointing because it was a really good lap up until then. I was really enjoying it. And then, of course, not to finish it is extremely disappointing. Especially now in this fight.
“Of course, you want to start first but nevertheless it also gives me hope because in Qatar we were four-and-a-half tenths off and then you know in the race it’s going to be really tough but here, I do think we have a good shot at it. It seems that at least we can fight. In Qatar we were really off the pace so it seems like our car is working a bit better here, and I hope that tomorrow on this track we can follow well, and then I’m sure we have a good shot at it.”
Bottas: “My prep [amid engine change]? Not at all. The guys, they just finished the car in time, and everything was working fine, so I already promised them some beers when we’re, well allowed to have some. So that’s going to be on me. You know if there’s a chance I can win the race I’ll try but if not, then we need to maximise the team result and yeah, I’m not fighting for the World Championship any more so of course I’ll keep that in mind. Lewis and Max is, so we need to see what is the best for the team.”
Perez: “We were P1 in Q1 and Q2 and then in Q3 I don’t think the approach we took with the tyres was the right one. I suddenly picked up a lot of understeer and couldn’t match my Q2 time, which is a bit of a shame. These tyres are so picky that if you are not in the right temperature window then your balance is totally different and that is what happened to me today. It is a physically demanding track, it puts a lot of stress on your body and mentally it is challenging too to be up there session after session. Today wasn’t an ideal day for us as a Team but tomorrow there is still a lot to play for, it is going to be a long race and anything can happen still. I am looking forward to it, the pace was there today and I really hope we can improve on our starting position and get into the podium positions very early on. We will see if starting on the clean side of the grid tomorrow is an advantage, I think the start is a good chance to overtake, then we will go from there and try to be in the mix with the leaders straight away.”
Behind them, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc got the last laugh to be best of the rest with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly sixth. The team had a good run with Yuki Tsunoda in the Top 10 as well and on a good strategy to McLaren’s Lando Norris, who was seventh but will start on the soft tyres as the team were forced to switch him to different compound.
His teammate Daniel Ricciardo had a floor damage which hurt his chances as Alpine were in two waters too with Esteban Ocon making it in the Top 10 while Fernando Alonso did not make it in. The same happened with Ferrari but it was more due to Carlos Sainz’s wall hit in Q2 than due to pace trouble.
Gasly: “I can only be happy with a top six. I can’t be too greedy, but obviously at the same time, 2cm [we missed out on P5] – we should calculate, but it must be extremely close. You always think what could have been but at the end of the day, it’s been a very good qualifying. It was not an easy one, I didn’t feel comfortable in the car, Q1, Q2, I had a couple of moments. It’s difficult to put everything together. I really had to work on the lines and try to maximise everything and that’s what I did in Q3. I’m really pleased with that. We have been looking at everything. We did try to make everything we can to improve, as it’s going to be a hard one for us – a lot of high speed [sections], it’s really hard on the tyres. We expect it to be not an easy one for us tomorrow, but it can’t be worse than Qatar. There it was really painful. I expect tomorrow to be slightly better but still we’ll have to fight, clearly, with the cars around us.”
Sainz: “It’s a bit of a shame, as I was coming from a very strong FP3, a very strong Q1 and suddenly this snap in the middle of Turn 11 cost me a whole qualifying as in the end, it meant I stabbed the wall with the rear end-plate, which I actually didn’t feel in the car. And then when I look in my mirror, the end plate is completely bent and the rear wing is not delivering the downforce it should. It is something to analyse, something to look into what I could have done differently as it’s a snap of oversteer that I was not expecting. This corner has been flat for me for the whole of qualifying, and for some reason in that lap, I lost the rear, but we’ll look at it and come back from it. Even with rear wing bent like it was, I was coming on a very strong lap before the rear wing properly gave up. Confidence has been there all weekend, it’s been there the last four weekends actually. I’ve been really strong in qualifying, Q1 here I was really strong so, one small bump in the road, but honestly I feel comfortable.”
Norris: “It’s going to be very tricky, especially because I’m the only one on soft tyres, so it’s going to be a difficult one, but I just thought I’d make my race even more difficult. Why not? We wanted to go through on the medium. It’s just risky. It obviously didn’t work out for Danny, so that could have been us… if I didn’t put a good lap in on the medium. So we decided to go for the safer option; go with the softs, which we’ll pay the price for tomorrow, but it also put us three or four positions higher. But it’s tough. It’s super fun, it’s nice to get out there and try and find every bit of lap time and take those risks and play with fire like that… Just, not happy with quali.”
Ricciardo: “We damaged the car on the kerb the last run, the last lap, and then the floor was just dragging on the straights, so I lost, I don’t know, tenths – lots of lap time. It’s a kerb I have used this weekend and… I can’t help but feel unlucky right now. So it’s pretty frustrating. So we were easily through [to Q3] and I think we were fast. We made some good set-up changes from P3 to quali. I’ll obviously take some responsibility, like maybe I tried to use an extra inch, but in saying that… it was such a small thing, it hurts to be penalised that much. So I am just frustrated for everyone because we truly did make a really good step and I think we would have been very, very competitive in Q3.”
While Ocon had a good run, Alonso rued missing out on a Top 10 as he felt he lost all pace he saw on Friday. At the same time, Alfa Romeo pair were pretty pleased with a better pace with Antonio Giovinazzi making it in the Top 10 in his penultimate qualifying.
There was no joy for Aston Martin pair as they found themselves knocked out in Q1 as traffic and lack of pace hurt their chances. Even for Williams, it was a mixed bag with George Russell making it in Q2, while Haas pair were apart quite but Nikita Mazepun rued traffic.
Alonso: “It was a tricky session for us tonight. Yesterday the car felt fast and had a good balance, but today from FP3 and into qualifying the car felt very different. On a street circuit and going close to the walls it’s quite difficult when you aren’t totally comfortable with the balance. We saw in Formula 2 there were more overtakes than expected, so while I think it will be more difficult for us to follow at such high speeds, we remain hopeful to make up ground tomorrow. I hope to have a clean race tomorrow and we need to make sure to score more points in our battle for fifth place.”
Giovinazzi: “It was a great qualifying and I had a lot of fun, the car today was just brilliant. We knew the medium tyres would be better and we showed just how good they were in Q2. The soft in Q3 weren’t as good and we struggled a bit more, it took us longer to get them in the right window, but tomorrow we will start on medium which is a positive. I could have improved even more on my Q2 lap but I had a little kiss with the wall on my final flying lap: thankfully I could still make it through. Starting in P10 with our preferred tyres, on a track like this, will be good and I can’t wait for the race. We had a strong weekend straight from FP1 and now we just need to keep this pace, maybe with a bit of the luck that has eluded us all season, to bring home a good result.”
Vettel: “I was a little surprised that we were unable to make Q2 because I felt my last lap was good – even though I was held up at the end of the second sector, which cost me a few tenths and a chance to progress. There was a lot of traffic out there, especially at the end of laps, which complicated things further. I think it is clear that this track does not suit our car in qualifying trim, but the positive is that our race pace has traditionally been stronger this season, so we will see what we can do tomorrow. It hurts to qualify in P17 but, if we have an eventful race tomorrow, we can try to make our way up the field.”
Mazepin: “The track’s still good – it cleared up from yesterday which is a positive. I was happy with my rhythm, that was totally deliberate and ended up in a very good place in FP3 and if anything, I should’ve been better in qualifying. Unfortunately, qualifying is about a lot of others letting you do your lap. 6.1km on this track isn’t enough for even the best in our sport to get through. I was divebombed by four or five cars into the last corner when I was trying to make a gap and ended up racing Vettel on the start-finish line so didn’t get my lap in.”
Here’s how F1 Saudi Arabian GP qualifying panned out