SILVERSTONE, U.K — You wouldn’t have won a lot for betting on Mercedes returning to pole position at Silverstone, but you might have if you’d tipped Valtteri Bottas to beat Lewis Hamilton to it in front of his home crowd.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc also made qualifying interest on Saturday afternoon but Valtteri Bottas is probably the only man who can still do the same thing to this year’s championship fight, so our round-up of the good, the bad and the ugly of qualifying starts with the Finnish driver.
Bottas fights back: This pole position was crucial for Valtteri Bottas. At recent races it seemed like he was the only man who still believed in his championship challenge, but a five-point gain on title rival Lewis Hamilton in Austria and pole position on his teammate’s home turf in Silverstone has seen him start to turn the tide. Over a single lap he now appears to be closer to Hamilton’s remarkable level and this year he leads his teammate 4-3 in terms of pole positions.
But let’s not get carried away just yet. The statistic that really matters still stands at 31 points in Hamilton’s favour — a relic of car 44’s four straight wins in Spain, Monaco, Canada and France — and the margin between the two Mercedes drivers on Saturday afternoon was a minuscule 0.006s over 5.8km. What’s more, from two of his previous three pole positions this year, Bottas has lost the lead before the first corner, putting immense pressure on his shoulders as he lines up on Sunday’s grid. Tyre management will also be key to victory at Silverstone and it is clear that Hamilton has got a better handle of this year’s tyres over a race distance.
But whichever way you cut it, victory on Sunday could be a turning point in Bottas’ championship and anything other than a win will seem like an almighty blow.
Tyre wars: For the second race in a row, Ferrari bucked the trend at the front of the grid by opting to start the race on soft tyres instead of mediums. The Italian team had the pace to progress to Q3 on the mediums, but opted to send Charles Leclerc out on the softs late in Q2 to improve on his time and lock in a start on the red-striped compound.
The softer rubber should offer an advantage off the startline, but will limit strategy options later in the race. Ferrari’s true long-run pace was masked on Friday due to a setup issue leading to excessive wear on the left front, but the hope within the team is that changes to the setup and cooler conditions might mitigate that problem. If Leclerc can beat one or both Mercedes into the lead on the first lap then the soft tyre choice will be instantly vindicated, but if he remains third and drops off the pace there will be more questions of Ferrari’s strategists.
“It was planned like this [to start on the softs],” Leclerc explained after qualifying. “The race run was not great yesterday, it was not due to the tyres — we had some issues with the front end. I think it got better today so we’ll see tomorrow if we have a significant improvement on the long runs. But it was not due to the tyres.
“We will try to use our tyre advantage, especially at the start, to gain positions and then try and keep them. Keeping them will be very difficult because the Mercedes are both extremely quick in race runs, but that’s the target.”
What’s happened to Vettel?: Sebastian Vettel’s recent form has been curious. The German driver was unable to match Leclerc’s heroics in Austria, where the Monaco native claimed pole position and very nearly won the race, and was clearly off the pace of his teammate on Saturday at Silverstone. Despite an early radio message which seemed to be about his Drag Reduction System (DRS), Ferrari played down suggestions of an issue with that system.
The four-time world champion was in no mood to make excuses after qualifying.
“I just didn’t have the speed,” he said. “Usually it’s pretty clear that you go faster from Q1 to Q3 without doing anything, but that didn’t happen today. I think Q1 we were as fast as in Q3, so it was a bit strange. I didn’t have a great feel for the car which didn’t help.”
When asked where he felt Leclec was doing a better job, he said: “I think he did a good job but for me I don’t really have an answer now. I think it’s fairly evenly spread, he seems to gain a bit everywhere.
“I didn’t really have a great feeling this afternoon and part of it, around here, you need a bit of it to throw the car from one side to the other.”
With Leclerc clearly growing in confidence behind the wheel of the No.16 car, it will be fascinating to see how Vettel responds on Sunday with Ferrari arguably on the less agreeable of the two strategies in play.
A step forward for Gasly: On the surface of things, Pierre Gasly didn’t have a great afternoon — he qualified 0.3s behind Max Verstappen (a pretty comfortable gap in F1 terms). But that doesn’t paint the proper picture of the weekend so far. Gasly was quicker than Verstappen in both Friday practice sessions and spent the 10 days since his dismal performance at the Austrian Grand Prix working with Red Bull to find a solution to his recent struggles.
Gasly wasn’t paying too much attention to the final deficit.
“I would say so far yes, strongest weekend of the year,” the Frenchman said. “We have a good practice, it was important to get a good starting position, and yeah, that’s what we get for tomorrow with a fifth place on the grid.”
Gasly has plenty of work to do before he’s legitimately giving Verstappen a run for his money but this was a definite step forward and, as he went on to say, a validation of the work he’s done since the race in Austria.
“I think we showed all the imporvements we have made, and we have changed a lot of things. It seems to work. Still not perfect, as I said I didn’t expect things to go perfectly straightaway, but I think we made a big step forward all weekend. It’s positive to see that it’s paying off.”
Now he just needs to follow it up with a strong Sunday…
Silverstone’s next hero?: Lando Norris has already cemented his name as a future F1 star and on Saturday afternoon delivered another super display in front of his home crowd. The British driver managed to do what McLaren teammate Carlos Sainz could not and get his orange car into Q3.
Norris should have a quick race car at his disposal tomorrow, given McLaren’s pace so far this weekend. He will line up alongside Daniel Ricciardo, the man who had him in tears of laughter during Thursday’s press conference after making a lewd joke, hoping to continue his impressive run of form in front of a crowd full of Union Jack flags.