Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc claimed the first pole of the season at the Bahrain Grand Prix when the revolutionary new F1 cars sporting brand-new 18-inch Pirelli tyres made their debut under the floodlights in Manama.
The Milan based tyre supplier has selected the three hardest compounds in the new 18-inch tyre range for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix: the C1 compound is the P Zero White hard, the C2 is the P Zero Yellow medium and the C3 is the P Zero Red soft which is one step harder than the selection made for last year’s race.
Sakhir is a stop-and-go track where the rear tyres work hardest due to the longitudinal loads. The asphalt abrasion is high thanks to a high percentage of granite within the asphalt, which leads to high levels of wear and degradation. A further complication is the sand that blows in from the surrounding desert, causing a lot of sliding.
Leclerc, who secured his 10th career pole position, got through qualifying using the P Zero Red soft tyre only: a total of four sets, one each in Q1 and Q2, then two sets in Q3. All the other drivers followed this strategy with the only exception being the Williams duo of Alexander Albon and Nicholas Latifi, who did an in and out run with mediums.
Pirelli expects that the 57-lap Bahrain Grand Prix will be a two-stopper due to its abrasive asphalt and demanding layout. According to the information gained during pre-season testing and Friday’s free practice sessions, all three compounds can be used for a two-stopper or alternatively two set of softs and one of medium, which is reckoned to be the fastest option.
The Italian tyre manufacturer estimates that a one-stopper isn’t completely out of the question, but it will be slower given the long runs completed on Friday afternoon.
Formula One has made an important tweak to the sporting rules which now does not require the top 10 drivers to start the race on the set of tyres with which they set their fastest Q2 times. It means that the teams have now a free choice of starting tyres which makes the strategy even more open than before. There has been a big performance gaps between the different compounds, meaning that those starting on the soft tyres can enjoy a big performance advantage not only at the start, but also in the first couple of laps.
Commenting on the qualifying session, Pirelli's Head of F1 and Car Racing Mario Isola added: “In qualifying we finally saw the true pace of all the teams. With cool temperatures that were similar to FP2 and the hardest tyres in the range selected this weekend, tyre warm up was marginal, especially with track temperatures dropping as the evening went on. Another decisive factor in the qualifying strategy was the removal of the rule this year that obliged drivers to start the race on the tyres with which they set their best Q2 times.
"As a result, everyone begins the race tomorrow on an entirely level playing field and the focus tonight will shift towards the race strategy, and which tyres to start on. With a big performance gap between the compounds, this adds another level of complexity to what is already a tricky decision, as the new formula makes its race debut on Sunday. We’re expecting slightly warmer conditions compared to today and two pit stops; but there may be scope for some drivers to do something different," Isola concluded.