And like that, a shock Mercedes front row lock-out at the Mexican Grand Prix!
This after Red Bull had dominated Friday both long runs and single lap, just as everyone had expected, Mercedes included.
Just what the hell happened that the form between the two Formula 1 title-contending teams was completely inverted in Q3?
In the immediate aftermath there are some obvious contributory factors.
1) The track came to Mercedes
The track temperature increased to the hottest it’s been all weekend into Q2 and Q3 at 45-46-deg C, 10-11-degrees hotter than it had been in FP3 in the morning and around 6-7-deg hotter than on Friday.
At a track where the tyre performance is so on the edge, the temperature change completely changed the handling traits of the two cars – and the tyre preparation laps.
On Friday and, to a lesser extent into Saturday’s FP3, the Mercedes would twitch its way into the slower turns, requiring two bites of the steering from Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
The Red Bull by contrast was positive and planted, the stronger rear grip allowing Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez to load the front up quickly and get early onto the power.
That pattern held into Q1, though the contrast was less stark. Bottas ended up heading that session but only because he made a second run. It took him three laps on a track that was gripping up to eclipse what Verstappen had done in one lap early in the session.
At that stage, Red Bull still held the advantage, though it had definitely narrowed. For one thing, the Mercedes could now get much more of the tyre performance on the first lap. Or Bottas could, at least.
“The car had already improved into FP3 this morning,” he said, “but I was still lacking a bit of pace on lap one. But this afternoon the track temperature came our way.”
He’d had a feeling this was going to be the pattern. He could feel that as the track grip increased, it was easier to get temperature into the fronts for the start of the lap without overheating the rears.
It wasn’t that the increased temperature was making the track surface grippier, but it was allowing the Mercedes a better tyre preparation, more balanced between front and rear.
Hence when the engineers were trying to convince Bottas to make further finetuning changes into qualifying, he was adamant that he wanted the set-up just as it was in FP3.
He felt the expected temperature jump would do the rest. It was all about the tyre prep lap. He wasn’t to know that the mechanism would work the opposite way around on the Red Bull; all he could do was concentrate on his task.
Into Q2 with the track temperature still climbing and with both cars on the mediums, the Mercedes was closer again.
Verstappen did only one run on the mediums and was all-but-matched by Hamilton on that run, though the latter had benefitted from a Bottas tow. Hamilton made a second medium-shod run to eclipse Verstappen’s time as Max on a set of softs did a deliberately slower lap (so as to ensure he’d start the race on the favoured medium) as preparation for Q3.
But come Q3, Hamilton wasn’t happy with the balance of the Mercedes on softs – and nor was Verstappen with that of the Red Bull.
Bottas, by contrast, was delighted. The car had a bit of confidence-inspiring understeer but was gripping well, just as he likes it. But not as Hamilton likes it.
“The car felt good in FP3 on the softs,” reported Hamilton, “but not in qualifying. I had to make a lot more movement on the steering.”
He was around half-a-tenth shy of Bottas on the first Q3 runs, even with the benefit of a tow (Bottas managed to pick up a less powerful tow from the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc).
“Maybe I should spend less time in engineering as I always seem to mess it up,” Hamilton joked.
“That was the best the balance of the car has been all weekend,” said Bottas by way of contrast.
Quite aside from the track positioning-induced difficulties Verstappen suffered, he was dismayed with where the balance of the Red Bull had gone.
The higher track temperatures seemed to have reduced the car’s rear grip and his lap, only third-fastest, was scruffy. “The balance just went away from us,” he explained, something which Perez backed up.
Bottas’ first run would stand as pole – though his second would have been good for it too. Hamilton failed to improve. Verstappen was on-course to improve – he was 0.25s up on his first effort when he was delayed by the Yuki Tsunoda/Perez incident ahead of him – but probably not by enough to better Bottas.
“It’s such a tricky track for a good lap,” said the delighted polesitter. “Riding the kerbs right, getting a clean lap, getting the tyre temperatures in the right window.
“It was all about optimising the set up, the track temperatures and the out-laps.”
A combination which he had shrewdly anticipated.
But for Verstappen there was no mystery about why Mercedes had locked out the front row.
“We were just really slow and had terrible grip in Q3,” he said. “It’s not what the car was in all the practice sessions.”
2) Tsunoda effect
You will have seen the unfortunate choreography of how a cruising Tsunoda – taking a power unit grid penalty in the AlphaTauri but fighting through to Q3 anyhow in order to tow team-mate Pierre Gasly – chose to get out of the way by driving onto the Turn 8 run-off.
In so doing, he raised a dust cloud which distracted the following Perez and caused him to take to the same run-off just before Verstappen in full flight arrived on the scene.
“I thought there were going to be yellows,” he said, “and I have been penalised here for that before and so I backed off. Then there weren’t any yellows.
“I tried to make it up in the rest of the lap but that never works.”
Verstappen’s scrappy first Q3 lap was 0.35s shy of Bottas’ pole time. Quite aside from a significant oversteer moment early in the lap, he’d not been able to pick up the tow from Perez, as planned, because the Ferraris had got between them out of the pits.
By the time Verstappen had found his way past them Perez, getting his tyres up to temperature, was out of reach.
On Verstappen’s final run he had improved by 0.25s up to Turn 8. Might he have found a further 0.1s in the remaining nine corners? It’s not inconceivable.
“It’s all ifs so I don’t like to say,” he said, “but I think I would have at least been fighting for pole.”
With a Red Bull that had lost its balance, which wasn’t anything like the sweet and sharp machine it had been throughout Friday and into Saturday morning, Verstappen could still conceivably have taken pole.
Mercedes’ chosen track positioning – sending Bottas and Hamilton out right at the back of the pack, a long way behind – worked well for it. Red Bull, in that busier part of the track, got bitten.
But it could just as easily have worked out the other way, with a yellow flag incident behind the Red Bulls affecting the Mercedes.
3) Mercedes is competitive on power here
None of Bottas’ great judgement on set-up, the beautifully precise lap, Verstappen’s balance problems or the unfortunate Tsunoda/Perez incident would have mattered if the Mercedes was as uncompetitive on horsepower as had been feared by the team coming in.
Toto Wolff confirmed afterwards that the power unit is now stronger at high altitudes than previously after some optimising changes to minimise its turbo’s heat generation.
The accompanying data traces show that it was at least competitive with the Honda on power.
It’s a lower-rake car and that partly explains its higher speed through the trap at the end of the pit straight. But it’s also quicker out of Turn 3 onto the shorter back straight.
The fact that the Red Bull then overhauls it before the braking zone for Turn 4 despite its higher drag suggests there may be a difference in the deployment distribution between the two power units – but at the very least the Mercedes engine is in the ballpark and not the reason the car had been lagging to the Red Bull up until qualifying. This is consistent with Hamilton’s insistence that the deficit was in downforce.
That said, the Honda does seem still to have the edge at this altitude. Looking at a pit straight speed comparison between the Verstappen and Hamilton best laps, we can see that although the Mercedes is faster through the last corner (as shown in the mini-sector graphic above), the Red Bull is almost immediately quicker at the beginning of the pit straight.
But the Mercedes’ lower drag soon begins paying back as the speeds rise and it can be seen how much earlier it is reaching the same speeds.
4) Red Bull rear wing concern
There was a lot of attention given to the late repairs to the rear wings of both Red Bulls just prior to the beginning of qualifying. It inevitably led to speculation about whether their performance was in any way compromised.
It was what Christian Horner describes as a possible fatigue stress around the section where the outboard section where the flap/endplate meet. It was, the team insists, a precautionary repair.
“There was a crack we found after FP3,” said Verstappen, “but the wing was working just as it should after it was patched up. That wasn’t the reason we struggled.”
But might the concern and focus on the wing problem have taken attention and priority away from thinking about the implications of the rising track temperature? On such small things can races – and championships – turn.