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24 Jun 2018

Ambient 22° Track 30° Humidity 60% Wind 0.4 m/s


Let it never be said that the challenges of being a Formula 1 fan are overstated, after yesterday's epic Fake Charlie Whiting traffic thread. 9.5 hours for 90km of driving to reach the circuit makes even the BQE Friday at rush hour on a holiday weekend look like a picnic in comparison. Fortunately, for those of us watching at home, remembering to set the alarm was all that was necessary to catch all the action. 

FP2 featured Mercedes, in the guise of Hamilton, setting some rather crushing fast laps with their brand new 2.1 spec PU whose update was skipped over in Canada for last minute reliability concerns. Worth noting that Lewis' early fast laps came on Ultras that were 6 laps old, suggesting that the thinner tyres were doing their jobs, given the track was 50°C. Of course, according to even the paranoid minded Ferrari, the tyres benefited them as well, but if the tyres seem to benefit Mercedes most, it's perhaps not unreasonable to think that they are also having more issues with the regular tyres than the other 2 teams at the sharp end. 

Long run pace suggested that Ferrari were strong on the Supersofts, with Vettel on 20 lap old tyres running nearly a second faster than Ricky Danny on Ultras half that age, and that was with an old engine that was being used to save mileage on the new spec PU introduced in Canada. Hamilton was there or thereabouts, but the loss of Bottas to a water leak robbed Mercedes of very important data on the Supers, as well as cutting short their info gathering on the Ultras as they reworked Hamilton's program to try and get an idea of each tyre before the session ended. Of course, the situation was even worse for Bottas, as not only did he miss the opportunity to tweak his set up, but the rains that washed out FP3 meant he will have had only a handful of laps to dial it in for Quali. 

Red Bull looked strong, but the fact that they were not dominating Sector 3 yesterday, does suggest a still extant power/regen issue for the Renault power unit, since they were able to match Mercedes in Sector 1. Thus the long Mistral straight down the back of the circuit, even with the chicane, is where we are seeing the upgraded Merc PU make a real difference as the Renault come up short at the end of it. 

HAAS look best of the rest, Grosjean leading the French contingent and Gasly, doing quite well with the upgraded PU. Not so Hartley, whose PU went bang in spectacular fashion sending him yet again to the back. Force India admitted that their current financial circumstances were doing them no favours, then Perez mysteriously lost a wheel on a hot lap during FP2, bringing out the red flag and spoiling a large number of laps, as it had been judged the optimum time for the majority of teams. 

As Quali approached, some modestly ominous clouds ricocheted about the mountains surrounding Paul Ricard, remnants of the thoroughly unheralded wet FP3, which was seemingly a historical first. Red Bull appeared to be running different rear wing specs, with Verstappen opting for the lower DF version. The possibility of rain lingered, with a 60% chance of a shower during the session. Both HAAS and Ferrari broke curfew as well, HAAS for an MGU K issue on RoGro's car, and Ferrari for reasons unspecified....


Green Light!! Stroll was first out of the blocks, with some standing water remaining from the deluge of FP3. Sirotkin and Gasly were hot on his heels and by the end of the first minute, a full half the grid were on track, the with only the sharp end of the grid holding their fire. 16 minutes and Stroll was off, as team radio warned drivers to create appropriate gaps. 

1:34.725 for Stroll who was atop the leaderboard till Gasly came through. Magnussen crushed them both, with a 1:32.956 which was then eclipsed by his teammate, with RoGro going a half second quicker. The big shocker was Leclerc, P3 in the midfield with a 1:33.057 and well ahead of both Renaults. 

As those times rolled in, Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari were on their outlaps, with 12 minutes left in Q1. Verstappen was first into the 31's but his purples were already being smashed by Bottas and Hamilton radioed in a problem with the padding around his ankle. No major worry as he went 0.2 seconds faster than Bottas, or at least there wasn't until Raikkonen went faster. 

Ocon, who had been stuck in the garage, finally rocked out with less than 10 minutes to go, and as his competitors retired to reset for another go, the force India drver had an empty track and managed P14. Consigned to the drop zone were Perez, Alonso, Ericsson, Sirotkin and Stroll. 

7 minutes to go and Verstappen took advantage of the improving track to go P1, knocking a couple of hundredths of Raikkonen's time. Lewis, too, had one more go and took a rather more substantial quarter second off Verstappen, with a 1:31.271 to retake P1. Vettel, however, was headed the wrong direction, still in P6 and barely faster than Grosjean, perhaps with an issue although nothing reported. 

5 minutes to go and it was Hamilton, Verstappen, Raikkonen, Bottas, Ricciardo and Vettel at the top, but the focus was shifting to the back, with both McLarens at risk of being dropped as well as both Force Indias. Ericsson was first through with 3 minutes left, up to P12. Sirotkin improved but stayed P19. Gasly to 9th, alonso to 12h. 2 minutes left and Force India were on their outlaps looking to cross the line just before the checquers were out. 

Vettel and Hamilton were still out, and Vettel did manage to go P5, but still rather far off Raikkonen, never mind Hamilton. Stroll, trying to go round Hulkenberg, ran wide and popped a wheelie, which, along with looking cool, damaged his floor and it was Vandoorne, Ocon, Perez, Sirotkin and  Stroll on the outside looking in as time ran low. Hulkenberg went P12 and not much quicker as Ocon was on a blinder, up to P11 as the checquers dropped. Ericsson to P12, rapidly dropped to P14 as Leclerc went faster. Alonso in P16 no improvement, Vandoorne P18 no improvement and last to cross the line, Hartley, P17 as Ericsson reported some rain in Sector 1.

Off for some fromage were Alonso, Hartley, Vandoorne, Sirotkin and Stroll as the rest turned it round for Q2. Hartley complained of not only traffic, but rain hampering his lap. The stewards took note of Sirotkin hampering Hulkenberg, who just squeaked by in P15, but no further action was the result. 

With the rain coming, there was a massive queue ahead of Q2 going green, with Verstappen at the front and all the teams desperate to get a good time in before conditions worsened. Mercedes were at the tail of the train and with less than a minute gone, there was no one left in the pits. No surprise after yesterdays running, Mercedes and Red Bull both on the Supers, with Ferrari going on Ultras. 

Verstappen with a 1:32, but he was rapidly surpassed by Sainz and then Grosjean. The Mercedes had the measure of it, though and with 11 minutes to go, it was Hamilton, Bottas and Raikkonen at the top, with Hamilton on a staggering 1:30.645, 0.6 seconds faster than his teammate, and 1.5 seconds faster than Raikkonen in the Ferrari. 

Vettel in the Ferrari, meanwhile, appeared to have sorted whatever plagued him in Q1, and was putting in some torrid sectors, before going P2, 0.3 seconds slower than Hamilton, but on the Ultras as opposed to the Supers on the Mercedes. Ocon, Leclerc, Ericsson, Hulkenberg and Perez were in the drop zone, with Gasly firmly planted in the hotseat of P10. 

5 minutes to go, and the track was silent save Perez, as the last, desperate attempts were underway in the garages to get their drivers into the top 10. Perez' solo effort left him in P10, just a tenth up on Gasly, as the rest of the runners hit the track with just under 3 minutes left in the session. 

Vettel led the pack and was on his way down the Mistral straight as Hamilton just crossed the line to start his lap. P2 for Sebastian, but now just a tenth off. Magnussen to P5 until RoGro outdid him. No improvement for Gasly as Ocon went P10. Leclerc then quickly dispatched Ocon going P10 and the eyes all went to the timing screens as Hulkenberg had the keys in his hand, but could do nothing about the plucky Sauber. 

Ricciardo, Hamilton and Bottas all backed out of their insurance laps on the Ultras, whilst it was Leclerc the belle of the Q2 ball, taking his Sauber to the Q3 shootout. Off for some Pastis were Ocon (by a tenth), Hulkenberg, Perez, Gasly and Ericsson as the rest got ready to go for all the marbles. The rain intensified a bit as the start of Q3 approached and the tyre strategy at the top was split, with Ferrari rocking the Ultras vs Red Bull and Mercedes on the Supers.

Another queue as the last session went green, with the Ferraris out and immediately followed by both Mercedes. Red Bull followed on, with Carlos Sainz the midfield meat in the sharp end sandwich. Both HAAS and the Cinderalla Sauber of Leclerc stayed parked and as Vettel came round to have his go, Magnussen wandered out of the pitlane as the rain began to tail off. 

Oooh 1:30.4 for Vettel, 1:30.317 for Bottas and then 1:30.222 for Hamilton. Verstappen went P4 with Ricciardo P5 and Raikkonen P6 then Grosjean stuffed it into the wall T4 and brought out the red flag with 7:49 left in Q3. On replay, it was the kerbs in T3 unsettling the HAAS and sending RoGro into snap oversteer, sending him into the wall at T4. Left Front suspension looked to take a hit, but not to the level of replacing components that incur penalties. That promoted Leclerc by default to P9 at a minimum, and continued the fairy tale. 

6 minutes to go and Raikkonen was the first out after the stricken HAAS was cleared, enjoying for the moment having the track to himself. It looked as if he was going to copy/paste RoGro on his first go and he had to back out. AS he approached the line to have another go, the rest of the field began to pour out onto the track, complicating his attempt to set a decent time with rather a lot of traffic. 

Bottas led the way for the rest on their outlaps and a miscommunication with the pits for Kimi had him thinking he had one more lap than he really had. No improvement for any of the top 3 and by Sector 2 it looked set, but Bottas then purpled Sector 3 and went P1, nearly a tenth up on Lewis as Hamilton approached the last turn. But nothing doing, as Hamilton, too, had found some performance through the last sector and retook top spot, just more than a tenth up on Bottas. Ferrari and Red Bull had nothing to answer for but it didn't really matter as Leclerc managed to outqualify Magnussen, going P8 and setting him firmly in the crosshairs for the silly season rumours. By far the best drive of the afternoon, in a qualifying that might, in hindsight, look critical for Grosjean, Raikkonen and Leclerc at the end of the season, for different reasons, of course.

Given that the drivers meeting ran to more than an hour, and reportedly featured lots of advice about how to improve the circuit, it's not a big stretch to imagine Canada redux for tomorrow. Ferrari did look to run more than half distance with good pace on Supers in FP2, but if anything is going to improve the racing, it will be mistakes from the drivers themselves. And it's worth noting that there's lots of odd cambers to the track, and running off line, or even taking a bit much kerb, as Grosjean neatly illustrated (along with Kimi) could wind up opening some unexpected doors. Differing tyre strategies at the top add some interesting strategic elements to be explored, along with the surprisingly unhistorical possibility of rain, which never fails to make things interesting.  

Rank speculation is cheap, however, and none of that will matter when the lights go out tomorrow. Of course the narrative will be Mercedes' resurgence and happily enough, the journey of Leclerc. Sainz, too, had a bit of a breakthrough, going best of the rest and burying his teammate for pretty much the first time this year. The changeable conditions in quali might've contributed somewhat to the result, but it will be an important moment for the Renault driver as he seeks to establish his role during his first full season at the team. But it remains for them both to confirm their performance when it counts most...


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