Yes, Max Verstappen got a helping hand from Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez on that fastest lap. After all, that gave Verstappen a perfect slipstream. But even without that extra top speed, Verstappen would probably have been on pole. The opening phase of his second attempt proved this, a fast lap that the Dutchman ultimately did not complete, because it was no longer necessary. Lewis Hamilton had already definitely bitten his teeth on Verstappen’s cannon time.
A somewhat surprising result. Until then Hamilton had always shown himself to be the fastest, but not the biggest surprise of qualifying. That was recorded ten minutes earlier, in the penultimate qualifying part.
Different tire choice
Let’s take a look at the F1 rules. They state that the top 10 of the starting grid must start the race on the tire type with which they set their fastest lap during that second qualifying period.
Top drivers like Hamilton or Verstappen almost always go for the medium tyre. After all, this allows them to continue longer in the initial phase of the race on Sunday until the mandatory tire change. Usually that one tire change is even enough to get to the end of the race afterwards. The fact that the medium tire is less fast does not have to mean a handicap in the qualifications. After they have qualified for the third and decisive qualifying part, the clocks go back to zero.
So big eyes when Verstappen and Red Bull teammate Pérez – after setting a sufficiently fast time on the medium tire – finally made an attempt on the faster soft tire and improved their time. That means they will have to finish the all-decisive season finale on the softest tire type.
That soft-band is faster, also provides better starts, but has one major drawback: its lifespan is limited. There is therefore a good chance that Verstappen will not be able to stick to one tire change during the race. So a gamble, to make sure that at least the initial phase of the race goes in Verstappen’s favor.
By also unexpectedly conquering pole, Verstappen can probably get the maximum return from his set of softs. But then comes the tactical joust: how long can he continue on those tires? Will Verstappen still try to finish the race with one tire change, whereby the harder, much less fast, tire type will then probably be used? And will that hard tire last until the end of the race?
The different strategic choice of the two title candidates – Hamilton will start as expected on the medium tire – is probably also bad news for the neutral fan. Because there is a good chance that the Briton will not take the risk of passing Verstappen on the track to avoid the risk of a disastrous collision, but will try it in the less spectacular way, via the pit stops.
Hamilton, who was impressed by Verstappen’s fast lap on Saturday, perhaps summed it up best: “I can keep an eye on Max from second place.” Like a hunter his prey, indeed. But a prey that can also get away very quickly.