Max Verstappen put in an impressive performance in yesterday’s qualifying session at Sao Paulo to secure the pole position for the 47th FIA Formula One Brazilian Grand Prix. The Milton-Keynes-based team’s rivals Mercedes and Ferrari were left puzzled by Red Bull’s one-lap performance.
Although Mercedes has tended to show great pace in race trim recently, their W10 seemed to be in good shape even on the qualifying simulation runs especially in the hands of Lewis Hamilton. The promising pace left the reigning world champion team hopeful of a strong qualifying showing and Hamilton expected himself to remain in contention for the first starting position, something he has failed to achieve since the German Grand Prix.
Ferrari, the team which has been regarded as the true force since the summer break when it comes to qualifying, also expected to be in the hunt for its ninth pole position in the season. However, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen showed early on in the first qualifying segment that his RB15 is very much capable of matching the performance of the rival cars. At the end, the 22-year-old Dutch driver topped all three parts of the qualifying session, leaving his rivals shocked on a race track where engines are used at full throttle for a significant part of the lap.
Verstappen set his best lap in Q2 with a time of 1m07.503 on Pirelli’s C3 compound, the softest one available at Sao Paulo. In the all-important last qualifying segment, on his way to the pole position, the Dutchman was 0.005s shy of his best time. Charles Leclerc was the only top driver to use the Yellow medium C2 compound as he sought for an alternative strategy for his long race affected and complicated by his ten-place grid penalty.
When it comes to the sectors, Ferrari and Red Bull were evenly matched in the first and the second final sectors where straight-line speed is the defining factor. Mercedes was averagely a tenth or two of a second behind the RB15 and the SF90 in the opening section of the Autodromo José Carlos Pace while Hamilton and Bottas could match their rivals on the fast, uphill, curving, undulating section which starts at Turn 12 and leads onto the main straight.
In the middle part of the track, Hamilton was the fastest in the third practice session, but Verstappen managed to turn things around for the qualifying session. Red Bull advisor dr Helmut Marko admitted that the Dutchman suffered from understeer in the final practice session which the engineers could cure by completing a few set-up adjustments.
Since the start of the weekend, Ferrari has been lacking of grip in Sector 2 which saw the Scuderia losing around two tenths of a second in the twisting, medium-speed middle section of the 4.309km race circuit.
Searching for answers
After the qualifying session, Mercedes and Ferrari drivers have been asked to deliver an explanation for Red Bull’s resurgence around the Autodromo José Carlos Pace. This track which is usually referred to as Interlagos packs plenty of challenges into its short layout including the need of a powerful power unit on a single hot lap. As the latter was something Red Bull’s RB15 has been lacking of all season long, rivals started pondering about the change in terms of strengths and weaknesses of different characteristics.
Straight-line performance was the first thing to come under scrutiny. According to the GPS data, Ferrari only gained a tenth on Red Bull and two tenths of a second on Mercedes on their fastest laps. Previously, Ferrari have found a gain of around five to seven tenths of a seconds on the straights depending on the length and the layout of the track.
Max Verstappen stated that Red Bull has tended to perform well at Sao Paulo in recent year what explains why it now finds itself in such a strong shape this weekend. In fact, Verstappen was on course to take the Brazilian Grand Prix victory in 2018 before he tangled with Esteban Ocon while trying to lap him. However, the Dutchman’s car was less powerful in qualifying trim as he only qualified fifth just under half a second behind the Mercedes and the Ferrari duo.
The two facts above clearly raise some questions regarding the alteration in terms of pecking order. As Honda opted for multiple power unit changes after the summer break (three complete fresh Pus for Verstappen), the fresher engine could partly explain Red Bull’s sudden performance gains. However, ‘partly’ is the key word as Charles Leclerc also uses a brand-new internal combustion engine for the weekend.
The RB15’s excellent form could also be partly related to the altitude of the Interlagos race track. Honda performed very well in Mexico on an extremely high altitude of 2.2km a few weeks ago and the fact that the Autodromo José Carlos Pace is located at some 800m above the sea level could indicate that the Honda power units work much better than the engine of their rivals in thinner air. As the internal combustion engines produce less performance in such conditions, it could suggest that the turbocharger and the electric components of the power unit of Honda work better on higher altitude what compensates for its lack of performance seen in normal conditions.