Such is the challenge of the no-nonsense Imola circuit that Sergio Perez said it was the worst place to come right now given the early discomfort he feels at Red Bull.
It seems to be a feeling shared by his fellow Formula 1 drivers who have shifted surroundings for 2021 – Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Except Perez has stuck his Red Bull on the front row.
“I guess Perez figured it out a bit more than the rest of us,” joked Ricciardo, the only other member of that quintet to crack the top 10 in qualifying but three tenths of a second adrift of McLaren team-mate Lando Norris on pure pace.
|Driver||Gap to team-mate|
|Carlos Sainz Jr||+0.391s|
Good humour aside, the collective struggles of Ricciardo, Alonso, Vettel and Sainz mapped out a clear trend at Imola. This is a track with little tolerance of mistakes. It rewards confidence and punishes hesitation.
And, Ricciardo points out, the F1 grid is the most competitive it has been for some time – under a second covered the top 13 cars in Q1.
“The car felt good, balance was good, and every time I finished the lap, I was quite happy with how I felt. But I definitely was too slow to be higher” :: Fernando Alonso
“Every tenth matters, but even more so now so you just can’t afford to be a few tenths off the pace or you’re going to get knocked out of Q2 and not make it, or it could be the difference from top three to a top eight,” said Ricciardo, who trailed Norris all weekend and only outqualified him following his team-mate’s track-limits infringement that deleted his best lap, cost him third and dropped him to seventh.
“At this track there’s more risks, you certainly do need to be comfortable with the car on the limit, and have that confidence. It certainly took me more time this weekend than it did in Bahrain,” Ricciardo continued.
“I would love to have been quicker. I think I made good progress, but it was a steady progression this weekend so probably just due to the nature of the track and also the level of competitiveness that everyone has at the moment.”
The drivers who have changed teams – and we are not counting the rookies in this as they have their own adaptations to contend with! – this season faced a well-documented challenge in the form of limited testing.
But this was perhaps masked at the start of the year because the season opener took place at the same track at the pre-season running had. So by qualifying, they were all dialled into Sakhir to relatively decent extents.
Not so at Imola. And such a fearsome circuit so early in the season is arguably where these drivers will most miss the 60 minutes of track time lost on Fridays now FP1 and FP2 are only an hour long.
“The speed is there, I know how to do a quick corner in the Ferrari. I just need to know how to do 10 quick corners in the same lap” :: Carlos Sainz Jr
Sainz, Vettel and Alonso were all Q2 victims on Saturday, but were not embarrassed by their team-mates. Nor did they complain of any major problem.
“We’re obviously right in the midfield and it’s very tight, a couple of tenths can make a big difference,” said Vettel.
“I was happier with the feeling in the car, but still missing maybe that last bit of confidence.”
Alonso’s verdict was simpler. “I was not fast,” he admitted. “The car felt good, balance was good, and every time I finished the lap, I was quite happy with how I felt.
“But I definitely was too slow to be higher in the classification.”
But Sainz probably characterised their shared issue best when he said: “I felt like I did every corner at least once during those four laps of quali as quick as I should.
“The issue is that I didn’t really do a single lap of putting all the corners together and I left two or three tenths on the table.
“The speed is there, I know how to do a quick corner in the Ferrari. I just need to know how to do 10 quick corners in the same lap. And it’s a matter of time and experience to get to know how to put that together.”
It’s curious to ponder why these drivers were so badly caught out by that and Perez wasn’t. He doesn’t have any extra running, doesn’t have any more experience of Imola, didn’t look as comfortable over one lap compared to any of them except Vettel in Bahrain. Through the Imola weekend he didn’t look at all spectacular. Then in Q3, especially, he came alive.
His car and team-mate might be the secret. The Red Bull, while a bit edgy in its responsiveness especially compared to what Perez is used to, clearly inspires a bit more confidence when it sticks. It’s a faster car than the others, perhaps the fastest of all (despite Lewis Hamilton’s pole position in the Mercedes).
And with Max Verstappen getting what Perez says is “100% all the time” out of the Red Bull, Perez has a reference point of exactly what’s possible. So, he says he just gradually built up to that and finally put it together.
Arguably he has the best situation in terms of pulling himself past the limitations of his situation. While others have good reference points – Norris was absolutely flying all day on Saturday, and Charles Leclerc is still doing wonderful things in the Ferrari – they perhaps don’t have quite the same car to break free of their mental shackles.
There was an interesting moment in Alonso’s debrief where he said he suspected the missing tenths he had to Esteban Ocon were “more down to me” and he may need to “understand better what is the limit of the car”.
“Maybe I’m not into that level yet,” Alonso wondered aloud. “Maybe there was more grip available than what I felt in my hands. I will try to get to the limit of the car quicker.”
Confidence is a fascinating thing in F1 and the beauty of a circuit like Imola is we see confidence manifest itself more clearly in laptime. A driver here can really make the difference.
That we have some of the finest drivers in recent F1 history – including two world champions – failing to make the difference so far this weekend is testament to the role confidence plays in a driver unleashing 100% of their and their car’s potential.
It also underlines the fine margins elite sport operates within and, like Ricciardo said, the inherent competitiveness of F1 2021.
The race will be another challenge entirely, one undertaken a fraction further away from the edge that these drivers live on during qualifying. So it will be fascinating to see if they remain hindered in some way – and the damage may already be done given Imola’s so hard to overtake on – or if the shift in intensity swings things back towards them.
If it’s the former, it may just be a case of grinning, bearing it, and chalking this weekend up as valuable experience. Vettel said he is “not a very patient guy, I don’t want to wait” but on the evidence of Imola qualifying, where four high-quality drivers fell short, waiting might be all he can do.
“A track like this, you need the ultimate confidence to extract everything and I’m not yet there,” he said.
“But it’s only the second race so I guess have to be a little more patient.”