A recurring theme during the 2021 Formula 1 season has been qualifying not going down to the wire in Q3. In fact, only once – in the Bahrain season-opener – has the pole position time been set on the second runs in the top 10 shootout. That plays to an underestimated aspect of the skillset of F1 drivers.
There’s always a sense of disappointment when qualifying doesn’t build to a dramatic denouement, which is a valid reaction.
Less appropriate is the feeling that it somehow denied certain drivers a shot at pole position, despite that being the prevalent feeling in Monaco and Azerbaijan.
While the first run in Q3, and in fact in any segment of qualifying, is often seen as the sighter run, it’s vital to deliver as strong a lap as you can precisely because there is so much scope for disruption.
Charles Leclerc generally nails his first run and it’s no coincidence that he’s the driver who has taken the last two pole positions when crashes, in one case his own, have ruined the second runs.
By contrast, team-mate Carlos Sainz lost out in Monaco and Baku thanks to not maximising his first run, costing him a potential shot at pole position.
But it’s not only on-track incidents that cause problems. In Portugal and Spain, condition changes made it more difficult on the second runs, which meant nobody could improve on the provisional pole position time set on the first run. At Imola, while only two drivers set their fastest times on the first run, one of them was polesitter Lewis Hamilton.
Over the six races so far, in just over 55% of cases, the times set by drivers on the first Q3 run have counted for the grid.
Is that luck? To a point, but this is one of those cases where it’s valid to say you make your own luck because by nailing it on your first run, you give yourself that chance. It’s all about tipping the odds in your favour in all situations.
Max Verstappen has perhaps suffered most from this among the frontrunners this season. He has just one pole position, secured in Bahrain (where he did also set the fastest time on his first Q3 run before improving on the second) and missed out when he had a realistic shot at pole at Imola, Portimao, Monaco and Baku. While in the most recent of those incidents he didn’t have the ideal tow on the first run, it’s still a pattern that hints at needing to become more effective at nailing that first lap as insurance.
The hit-rate for run one so far this season has been unusually high and won’t continue, but the value of a strong banker lap cannot be over-estimated. With drivers pushing to the limit in Q3, incidents are likely so you have to be prepared not to have the second chance.
This also has an impact on drivers earlier in the sessions. The regulations only require drivers to hold back one set of fresh tyres for Q3, meaning that if you use up all of your other softs in Q1 and Q2, you will not have two sets in Q3.
That impacts your capacity to deliver that strong initial banker lap, which also acts as a baseline for what should hopefully be an even better second lap if the opportunity arises.
For some, burning up your softs to reach Q3 is an unavoidable necessity. If you are in a marginal Q3 car like an Alpine, Aston Martin or Alfa Romeo, there’s every chance you will be doing your first run on used rubber. But if you can save a set, that’s a key advantage.
But if you are a frontrunner or even a comfortable Q3 contender, that’s when it’s necessary to ensure you deliver in Q1, in particular, to avoid squandering tyres.
Granted, sometimes you can be unlucky – as McLaren driver Lando Norris was in Spain when his first Q1 run was compromised by traffic outside of his control – but other times it can be down to not nailing it.
It’s a quirk of circumstances that the first run has been so significant so far this season, but it’s simply a reminder of why the first runs matter.
Qualifying may be all about that one special lap, but you can never quite be sure whether you really will get that expected final, decisive shot at it.