This phenomenon was exacerbated by unpredictable gusts of wind sweeping across the circuit, causing considerable challenges for many cars during their flying laps. But who really are the chief challengers to Red Bull, here we will see whether it is McLaren or Mercedes who have the upper hand.
What happened in Race Qualifying?
During the qualifying session, the track conditions were notably green, and it was rapidly improving, requiring teams to remain highly adaptable. Among all the cars, Ferrari proved to be particularly sensitive to the wind at the Losail circuit. This track demands a delicate touch on the front axle to prevent any understeer when exiting corners.
In Q3, Max Verstappen only attempted one run. He initially aimed for a flying lap, but due to the challenging wind conditions, the Red Bull car became unstable, leading to the decision to abort the lap. The team subsequently assessed that Max's earlier posted time was sufficient, and they opted to preserve the tires by instructing him to return to the pit.
Lewis Hamilton also faced challenges caused by the wind during his final run. This hampered his chances of securing a front-row position, despite the Mercedes showing promise on this track.
Lando Norris experienced the deletion of his final lap time due to exceeding track limits at Turn 12. Since he hadn't posted a time during the first run of Q3, this relegation means he will start from 10th.
Furthermore, after the conclusion of the session, Oscar Piastri's lap time was also invalidated for the same violation, and as a result, he is set to begin the race from sixth.
When we closely analyse the laps of Russell and Piastri, it becomes apparent that, with the exception of Turn 1, Piastri managed to gain time over Russell in all the corners. Furthermore, thanks to the McLaren's excellent exits from corners, it maintained an advantage in terms of higher top speed compared to the Mercedes.
It's noteworthy that Mercedes opted for a higher downforce setup compared to McLaren, resulting in slower straight-line speed for the former. However, Russell's strategy to compensate for this involved late braking into corners. While this approach allowed him to narrow the gap initially, it also led to understeer during corner exits, ultimately causing him to lose the advantage back to Piastri.
Russell initially gained two-tenths of a second into the first corner and then managed to sustain this gap throughout the lap. It's worth mentioning that Piastri did have another lap that was closer to Russell's time, but unfortunately, it was invalidated due to track limit violations.
What can we expect?
Now, it all boils down to the unpredictability of the race on Sunday. On Saturday, F1 and Pirelli issued a statement highlighting an unusual issue - a separation occurring in the sidewall between the topping compound and the carcass cords on many of the tires that were inspected. This unexpected development led to the addition of a special practice session, allowing the drivers to adapt to the alterations made to Turns 12 and 13 on the track. To address excessive tire wear, the decision was made to shift the curbs inward by a significant 80 cm.
Adding to the intrigue, the tyres used in today's Sprint race will undergo thorough analysis to determine if further adjustments are necessary ahead of Sunday's main event. This unforeseen twist introduces an element of uncertainty to the race weekend.
Furthermore, the unique circumstances of this race weekend compound the uncertainty. With a freshly resurfaced track and only F1 using it without any other racing activities during the meeting, the amount of rubber deposited on the surface is considerably less compared to other tracks. This translates to reduced grip for the drivers, making it challenging for them to find traction except on the racing line. Consequently, overtaking on this track is poised to be a formidable task unless a driver possesses a significant tyre advantage, adding an extra layer of unpredictability to the upcoming race.
In evaluating the tyre performance observed on the track today, it became evident that the medium compound was ideally suited for extended stints, particularly during the Sprint race. Conversely, the Soft compound offered enhanced performance during the initial stages of the race and during the three restarts, but it exhibited notable issues over longer distances, including graining and significant thermal degradation. It's worth noting that this was an expected outcome, given the track's slippery conditions due to the sand blown onto it by the wind. This suggests that the best strategy for the race is with a combination of medium and hard tyres.
Shubham Sangodkar is a former F1 Aerodynamicist with a Master's in Racing Car Design specialising in F1 Aerodynamics and F1 Data Analysis. He also posts aerodynamics content on his YouTube channel, which can be found here.
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