Downforce was the answer in even bigger letters than usual around a cool and damp Imola qualifying.
So Red Bull and Ferrari’s advantage over Mercedes was amplified. Add in some circumstantial unfortunate timings and there was no Mercedes in Q3 for the first time in almost a decade in Emilia Romagna Grand Prix qualifying.
“We had to do our times on the second lap,” rued George Russell after both Mercedes were eliminated in Q2.
“You saw it in Australia too, and so the red flag came at the worst possible moment for us.”
The flag for Carlos Sainz’s off came just as Russell and Lewis Hamilton had completed their soft-shod first laps, which were supposed to be just preparation laps bringing the tyres up to temperature ready for the full attack attempts at making Q3.
They never got to make those laps and with the rain now beginning to fall, the rest of Q2 timed out with no possibility of improving. Hence Russell and Hamilton lining up 11th and 13th respectively for tomorrow’s sprint race. Hamilton’s choice of a lower downforce rear wing than Russell only compounded his problems further on a day when downforce was paramount.
Russell’s lap was 1.964s slower than the session-heading time of Max Verstappen, set on the Red Bull’s first flying lap.
The Mercedes is not genuinely two-seconds slower than the Red Bull/Ferrari pace, but these circumstances could not have been worse for the team.
“We’ve struggled with warm-up with this car to be honest and we’ve not got to the bottom of it,” said Mercedes trackside engineer director Andrew Shovlin.
“Today was a fairly painful example of that where we couldn’t get the runs in that were long enough to build the temperature to get the tyres in the right window.
“We’ve seen this at all the races. In Bahrain it doesn’t really cost you. At all the other tracks it’s actually been a bit of a difficulty in qualifying.
“Our race pace has normally been good, we’ve demonstrated that we’re third-quickest on race pace.
“It’s on the single lap we seem to be very much in the midfield.”
It was a compounding set of problems – all of them routed in the Mercedes W13’s inability to defer its porpoising to a competitively high speed.
The low speed at which the onset of porpoising occurs on the Mercedes obliges it to be set up with a comparatively big rear ride height. Otherwise the car would be porpoising into and through the corners and would be undriveable.
The minimum ride height at which the team is forced to run the car is way too high to give downforce comparable to the two lead cars – and imposes a drag penalty into the bargain.
This has been the case for the whole season to date. What made the problem even more serious at Imola were the cool track conditions.
A track temperature which rarely strayed above 15 degrees C meant downforce was even more crucial than usual in bringing the tyres quickly up to temperature. This was the mechanism by which the advantage of the Red Bull and Ferrari were amplified.
Watching the behaviour of the Ferrari in particular, it’s clear that it can run with the rear virtually scraping the ground at high speed – which is when its fairly violent porpoising initiates, but at speeds well beyond the fastest corner speeds. So the downforce created by the super-strong seal of the underbody tunnels does not need to be surrendered just for the sake of a more comfortable ride.
Charles Leclerc lost out on pole to Verstappen’s Red Bull by over 0.8s – but only because of an error at Aqua Minerale which he puts down to his own bad choice of using brand new intermediates rather than used, which were coming up to temperature more quickly. Up until that time the pole fight between them was shaping up into an extremely close one.
The Red Bull is quicker in the long flat-out stretch of Sector 1, the Ferrari having the edge in the more downforce-demanding sectors 2 and 3. The Red Bull is invariably faster at the end of the straights, the Ferrari is coming onto them faster. The difference against the watch is marginal.
The most straightforward part of qualifying was probably the post-red flag part of Q1 when everyone was able to record representative times on the soft tyre. With the track improving by big chunks each lap, Leclerc was in a more favourable track position to catch the track at its best and was around 0.5s clear of Verstappen.
Q2 began with everyone on softs but knowing the rain was on its way. Leclerc did a banker lap, expecting to improve on the next lap. Verstappen’s opening lap was a more genuine attack lap and as Sainz crashed and caused the second red flag, so Verstappen was left heading that session by a couple of tenths from the crashed Sainz, with Leclerc a further 0.6s back.
With everyone on inters for the first runs of Q3 (after the Kevin Magnussen-induced red flag) Leclerc’s first lap of Q3 was fastest by a couple of tenths from Verstappen, though with both continuing to push on an improving track.
This second lap was when Leclerc suffered his brake-locking moment at Acqua Minerale and when Verstappen improved to take a provisional pole which would stand as the actual pole following the final red flag of the day (for Lando Norris). So the gap we see between the two lead cars is not a representative one.
Nor is Mercedes really only the eighth-fastest car (behind Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Haas, Alpine, Alfa and Aston Martin!), but that will be of little consolation to Hamilton and Russell.
“We still need to understand why we can’t match some of the mid-grid teams even,” added Shovlin of Mercedes’ tyre warm-up plight.
“We know Red Bull and Ferrari have got more downforce right now but we should be able to perform in the same position that we’re racing, which is realistically the third-quickest team.”