[How Mercedes can stop Verstappen domination in the Qatar GP
Formula 1 heads into the unknown in the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix.
Potentially, unprecedented tyre rules could be enforced to avoid the risk of dramatic punctures and risky crashes at the high-speed Losail venue.
The decision on whether that rather embarrassing situation for F1 might come to pass will be revealed after 2pm local time on Sunday and a key meeting between the FIA, Pirelli, the F1 organisation itself and the teams.
With the findings of Pirelli’s analysis of the condition of the tyres used in the Qatar sprint race following the rapid track changes made here on Saturday not yet known, there is a stark lack of data available for potential GP predictions. The many interruptions of the sprint race and the sprint weekend’s differing timetable have combined to reduce that data even further.
At the time of writing, we don’t even know the rules for Sunday’s action, so we can only look ahead on the assumption the race will run as normal.
After all, Pirelli and the FIA hoped that by painting the kerbs at Turns 13 and 14 80cm further out into the track, the risk of the tyre sidewalls separating from topping compounds and carcass cords will be eliminated.
So, here goes. Remember Friday night qualifying’s track limits farrago? Well, that has created the biggest risk to Max Verstappen’s chances of dominating the second Qatar GP overall, and second race of this weekend. And while he remains the overwhelming favourite given his RB19 performs best in race conditions and he’s already topped GP qualifying, it all centres on Mercedes.
Sergio Perez being knocked out in Q2 on Friday after going beyond track limits at Turn 5 means he starts down in 13th. Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri losing their best Q3 times for the same transgression – although in their respective cases at Turns 10 and 14 – means they line up 10th and sixth and not second and fourth. In their place, George Russell (who would’ve edged Piastri regardless in this instance) and Lewis Hamilton are boosted to line up behind GP polesitter Verstappen.
A late shuffle for track limit breaches puts both Mercedes directly behind polesitter Verstappen for the Qatar GP
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
The newly crowned triple world champion – yet again – now has no rear gunner. This automatically increases his win jeopardy. And the start of the sprint that Piastri won shows he’s quite vulnerable anyway.
PRIME: 10 moments that won Verstappen the 2023 Formula 1 title
In the sprint race, Verstappen started third but dropped to fifth by Turn 2 getting “eaten up” by the extra grip afforded to Russell and the Ferrari pair thanks to that trio starting on the softs.
The red walled tyres are not likely to be a race consideration at this high-tyre-energy venue, but if the GP top three starters are split on starting tyres across the medium and hard compounds, then there is the potential for a repeat given the slippery fresh track surface here.
It would therefore make logical sense for Mercedes to split its starting tyre strategy given the top three have the same remaining allowance of one new set of hards and one new set of mediums (it’s the same story throughout the top 10, other than for Valtteri Bottas who has an extra set of used hards available), with either Russell or Hamilton opting for mediums and hoping Verstappen starts on hards.”
“I’m battling [Verstappen]. I’ll give it everything to try and fight him. Maybe like George said, he will just disappear. But maybe we’ll be able to fight” Lewis Hamilton
In any case, it makes more sense for the second Mercedes to take the harder rubber, as Russell has less ground to cover with a potential grip advantage if Red Bull opts for Verstappen starting on hards. Of course, there is an obvious get out for Red Bull to take on this front…
Indeed, Russell fears “waving him goodbye after Turn 1”, but in the same Friday night press conference his team-mate was speaking in, Hamilton wasn’t having any of it. He is clear if there’s even the slightest opportunity to attack Verstappen, he and Mercedes should take it.
“I’m battling [Verstappen] for sure,” said Hamilton. “I’ll give it everything to try and fight him. Maybe like George said, he will just disappear – like he does in most of the other races. But maybe we’ll be able to fight.”
The freshly laid track surface added to the chaotic start of the Qatar sprint
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
So, let’s imagine Mercedes gets its desire, gets stuck in and even leads with both cars following the opening exchanges. These could be “carnage”, per Norris, as the low-grip Losail track surface contributed to the many sprint lap one slips and slides – in Liam Lawson’s case, into the gravel solo at the start of the sprint.
Even Verstappen had a massive sprint Turn 1 wobble, which cost him critical early momentum against the Ferrari drivers, despite him being sure “the first few laps, they were flying, but I was like ‘ok, I’ll see you in a few laps.’”
There is also a pertinent lesson to consider in this overall hypothetical from Carlos Sainz’s recent victory for Ferrari in Singapore.
This is that to beat Red Bull’s predicted tyre degradation advantage, with the sprint showing Mercedes has a pace and tyre degradation edge “advantage over Ferrari” according to Russell, the Mercedes pair’s biggest hope will come from working closely together.
Someone doing as Charles Leclerc did, and making an alternative starting tyre gambit to make a Turn 1 pass, springs to mind. So too does Sainz’s canny late Singapore DRS tactics to tow along Norris last month.
There has been a considerable headwind blowing down the main straight here at Losail all weekend, which naturally increases DRS potency. Making clever use of that tool across two leading cars could be beneficial for Mercedes, as would one of either Russell or Hamilton holding up Verstappen if the opportunity arises for the Brackley squad today.
Again, a clear counter point to this is to recall Red Bull’s own DRS and straightline speed prowess this year, which means Verstappen remains likely to just carve his way out of any shock difficulty. But Mercedes, and anyone else, can still dream.
Saturday’s sprint showed that safety car interruptions are highly likely in the GP – the track is just so low on grip and overtaking is possible, raising the potential for battles and therefore contact – especially if medium and hard starting strategies are split across the field, as they were with the soft and mediums yesterday.
While most may aim for a two-stop race, the FIA could need to enforce three-stop strategies on safety grounds
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Mercedes must ace its calls on pitting in what will be a multi-stop race regardless of the possible mandated tyre requirements. The temperatures and surface sliding meant Sainz spotted “even on the formation lap I could see graining”.
And then there’s the question of Verstappen versus Hamilton in battle once again. They’ve already clashed once in a race where the title had already been sealed and Russell ended up as the beneficiary.
On a day where F1 could break new ground, there’s a chance some old steps might just be retrodden too.
Verstappen has made it clear he won’t be easing off after sealing his third F1 world title in Saturday’s sprint
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images