PACE REVIEW: How the field stacks up against Verstappen in China

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F1 Grand Prix, GP China, Shanghai International Ciruitcn

Max Verstappen secured Red Bull's 100th F1 pole position at the same circuit where they scored their first pole. The Milton Keynes-based team's performance looked ominous both in the 19-lap sprint and in the main qualifying session. F1Technical's senior writer Balázs Szabó analyses teams' performance after the sprint race and qualifying.

Sprint race

Having spent the opening part of the sprint race behind Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, Max Verstappen took over the lead on Lap 9, and he managed to build up a healthy lead of 13 seconds from the Briton when they crossed the finish line.

The box plot clearly shows how excellent Max Verstappen's tyre management was. In fact, only Russell could display a similar pattern, having been the only driver to use Pirelli's softs for the sprint, which forced him to nurse his tyres at the beginning of the 19-lap race. There was, of course, a significant difference between Russell's and Verstappen's box though.

The Dutchman posted a 1m40.331s on Lap 3, and managed a 1m41.445s on his last tour with his pace fluctuating within a single a second, achieving an eye-catching absolute performance and delta. By contrast, Russell started the race with lap times in the mid-1m41s region, a second off Verstappen's times, and ended the race with a 1m42.705s, achieving a very similar delta and hence box length to Verstappen, but by a second per lap slower.

The boxes clearly confirm the pattern from the early races of the season. Fernando Alonso started well in the race, but his tyres began to fade on Lap 8 which meant that the two-time champion began to fall down the order. Only Ferrari's Carlos Sainz has a longer box which was induced by his late battles with Alonso and Leclerc which saw him produce several slower lap times. Believing that he has the pace for a possible sprint victory, the Spaniard conceded that he concentrated on Verstappen in the early phases of the race which saw him produce very impressive lap times between Lap 2 and 6, but he took out too much out of his tyres, hence the drop in the pace in the dying stages of the 19-lap dash.

Considering the mean lap times, Leclerc would have been the second-quickest fastest. The Monegasque displayed consistent and impressive pace in the first part of the sprint only to get involved in a fight with Alonso, Perez and Sainz which saw him post a few lap times that were a second slower than what he would have been able to record. On the last two tours when he was in free air, Leclerc got himself back into the 1m41s, showing that he would have had the speed to finish on the rostrum.

It is also worth noting that Lando Norris' box highlights his approach to the sprint race. Despite making a mistake at Turn 2 and dropping back into P7 at the start, Norris posted a couple of impressive lap times early on in the race. However, when tyre degradation kicked in, the McLaren driver slowed down, and was only able to post lap time in the high 1m42s region, hence the longer box for his sprint race.


With Formula One changing the parc fermé rules for the sprint weekend format, teams were able to make tweaks to the setup of their cars following the sprint race. Several outfits conceded after the 100km dash that they committed themselves to significant setup changes, including Ferrari and Mercedes.

In qualifying, Red Bull excelled with their one-lap performance with Max Verstappen having secured his first pole position in China with a time of 1m33.660s. Interestingly, his best time in Q2 was only a tenth of a second slower, meaning that there was only a slight track evolution between Q2 and Q3. Most of the drivers in Q3 achieved the same tiny jump as Verstappen with only Alonso having found over four tenths of a second compared to his best time from the middle part of qualifying.

In the end, the Dutchman's advantage was three tenths of a second from his team-mate Sergio Perez and a whopping half a second from third-quickest Fernando Alonso. The two McLarens and the two Ferraris were only around a tenth of a second shy of the Spaniard with Mercedes driver George Russell a further two tenths of a second behind.

Considering the sprint and the qualifying as a whole, Ferrari continued its reverse trend compared to last year: the SF-24 appeared to slightly lack one-lap pace, but it came alive in race trim. The Scuderia particularly suffered with an inconsistent performance of the SF-24 in the main qualifying session with the car behaving the best in Q2 only to fade in the last part of qualifying.

Looking at the sector times, Red Bull were clearly the quickest all through the lap. Interestingly, Aston Martin and McLaren were extremely close to Red Bull in Sector 1 with Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg also displaying strong times in the opening part of the track.

By contrast, Ferrari were lacking speed in the first sector, and they were even slower than their customer teams Haas and Kick Sauber. The Scuderia's best time in S1 was recorded by Carlos Sainz on his quickest lap in Q2, but neither the Spaniard nor Leclerc were able to get even close to the 25.0-second mark on their hot laps in the last part of qualifying. It was either down to the fact that Ferrari lacked speed in the long duration first corner of the track, or it was because of the tyre preparation Leclerc and Sainz followed on their warm-up lap.

In Sector 2, Red Bull had an advantage of around two tenths of a second, but, interestingly, Ferrari looked constantly the second fastest in this challenging section of the track. It is also worth noting that the three cars that have not excelled in high-speed corners so far this season, have once again lacked speed in this type of corners: Mercedes were the slowest among the top five outfits in S2 while Alpine and Williams had also difficulties in the sector.

Highlighting the aerodynamic efficiency of their car, Red Bull were two tenths of a second quicker than what second-quickest Ferrari managed in Sector 2. McLaren elected to use a medium-downforce rear wing for the weekend which is pretty much the conventional choice in China, and it helped the Woking-based team set a competitive sector time in the last segment of the track.

Having been only slightly slower than Ferrari, it has also been confirmed that Mercedes have made inroads with their straight-line speed which was one of their targets for this year. Alpine have been once again the slowest in this section that is dominated by the long back straights, meaning that they need to concentrate on improving the aerodynamic efficiency of their car.