Few passing places and low degradation raises stakes for qualifying in Qatar

2021 Qatar Grand Prix Friday practice analysis

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Track limits, both those enforced by the FIA and those enforced by aggressive kerbing, will be crucial to drivers’ qualifying chances around Losail – a circuit where the low chances of overtaking will make the starting grid incredibly important.

Ahead of the weekend drivers were not optimistic about the overtaking opportunities and their first two hours’ of running at the track have not changed that view. Without much chance of making up places, qualifying positions will be incredibly important – possibly not as much so as in Monaco but certainly comparable to a track like the Hungaroring.

That makes the detail of qualifying and finding a way to set the fastest lap possible, at an unknown track, more pressurised even than usual. With qualifying positions so critical, we may even see some drivers lending slipstreams to their team mates on the long straight leading into turn one.

Nailing the best possible lap times could be influenced by multiple factors: track limits (which have changed again since second practice) leading to lap time deletions, traffic and changing conditions as the track cools after nightfall.

AlphaTauri led Red Bull – expect that to change on Saturday
Valtteri Bottas, quickest on Friday, admitted he’d been unsure exactly where the ever-shifting track limits lay – and that was before the latest change.

The significant temperature difference between the two sessions means second practice times are likely more representative of the pecking order, though these were strongly influenced by lap time deletions and drivers running wide, kicking up plumes of desert dust.

Lando Norris was among those encouraged by his Friday pace, finishing ahead of both Ferraris. However he pointed out another key atmospheric condition besides the wins which may influence tomorrow’s qualifying session.

“The wind makes it very tricky,” Norris said. “It’s pretty windy and so on. And at the speeds you done little gust of wind or something can make a huge difference.”

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This is a factor which tends to affect some teams more than others. Already Williams are talking about this being a less promising weekend for them.

Norris also suffered damage to his car, in both sessions, due to running over kerbs at turn 14. “The exit kerb is a normal FIA exit kerb we have here, but it can damage your car quite easily, like it did for me this morning,” he explained. “And also there in [second practice] and also for others and can be quite costly. So it’s tricky to get right, but more because of the of the wind than anything else.”

Mazepin missed second practice due to damage
A common theme among several teams is that the combination of high speeds and the nature of the kerbs at this track is an invitation to pick up damage. That will be a worry for some this close to the end of the season when parts stocks may be low.

One potentially helpful development is that the high tyre degradation some forecast before the weekend has not yet materialised. George Russell remarked “the tyre degradation seems relatively low, which allowed us to push pretty hard, which is what we all want as drivers from a track.”

That means drivers may well be able to get multiple qualifying laps out of a set of soft tyres. That could be a blessing as they can expect to encounter more of the type of traffic problems which occurred in second practice. Fernando Alonso suggested drivers needed a fully clear sector in order to have space for a lap.

However the lower than expected degradation will make Saturday’s qualifying session even more critical. With fewer options open for strategists, drivers will have to gain positions on the track, which looks likely to be difficult.

As Friday’s running ended, Mercedes appeared to hold the upper hand. But Max Verstappen’s laps were on the scruffy side, and he expects there’s more to come from his runs on the soft tyre.

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Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit of the Americas, 2021
Verstappen set his quickest time on a slightly scruffy lap
“It was important to understand how the car would react and there’s quite a bit of change between the medium and the soft tyre,” he said. “That’s why I think on the soft tyre it wasn’t amazing. But [it’s] the first time here. So a lot of things to me to understand.”

AlphaTauri’s promising lap times – Verstappen was beaten by Pierre Gasly and Sergio Perez by Yuki Tsunoda – are a strong pointed to Red Bull having disguised their pace on Friday.

The other crucial decision front-running teams will have to make before qualifying is what strategy to aim for in the race, and therefore what starting tyre to use. Pirelli say the performance step between each of its compounds is 0.7 seconds, from hard to medium and again from medium to soft.

Getting through Q2 on a medium tyre will open up the possibility of running a one-stop strategy during the race, Pirelli expect. But those who have to use a soft may find themselves snookered into pitting twice on Sunday.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

Combined practice times

PosDriverCarFP1FP2Total laps
1Valtteri BottasMercedes1’24.1941’23.14851
2Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri-Honda1’24.1601’23.35755
3Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda1’23.7231’23.49842
4Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’24.5091’23.57046
5Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’25.2151’23.63243
6Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’26.7121’23.70537
7Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda1’24.6481’23.73555
8Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda1’24.9151’23.78742
9Sebastian VettelAston Martin-Mercedes1’25.3281’24.02046
10Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’24.7131’24.03354
11Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’24.9721’24.04152
12Fernando AlonsoAlpine-Renault1’25.9051’24.05646
13Charles LeclercFerrari1’24.7901’24.09550
14Daniel RicciardoMcLaren-Mercedes1’25.2911’24.13548
15Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’25.8281’24.63151
16George RussellWilliams-Mercedes1’25.8711’24.95451
17Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’25.7571’25.07246
18Nicholas LatifiWilliams-Mercedes1’25.6881’25.20952
19Mick SchumacherHaas-Ferrari1’26.6991’25.57548
20Nikita MazepinHaas-Ferrari1’27.50016

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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8 comments on “Few passing places and low degradation raises stakes for qualifying in Qatar”

  1. I actually take back of what I said, maybe there could be some overtaking and decent following on Sunday, perhaps better than Zandvoort. Also, I don’t think pole position could be decisive because it looks like quite a long run from the start to turn 1.

    1. @krichelle
      It seems to me that the picture of the start/finish straight is a bit misleading. According to AMuS the distance between pole and turn 1 is just 371 m, so a lot shorter than at Monza, Sochi, Barcelona or Mexico.
      Pole is definitely the best place to start from on Sunday, better than P3.

  2. So in all likelihood we’re going to have two teams protesting each other’s cars to try to get them sent to the back of the field.

  3. This article could do with a proof read.

    Interesting point about teams running low on spare parts. I wonder how this would play out in the cost cap era – hypothetically, would a team have to pull out of a race if it has run out of parts and reached its spending limit?

  4. So, if there’s any ‘hard racing’ really likely to have (V)SC here right?

    So I guess those restarts might also be conductive to overtaking opportunities then?

    The driver seem to enjoy driving the track, and I guess quali this afternoon will be interesting (hope not too much traffic drama, but probably some guaranteed), and then we’ll just have to see about the race I guess.

    Thanks @hazelsouthwell, interesting read.

  5. I thought we were told beforehand that the surface was massively abrasive and to expect a three stop. That’s quite a big swing to a one-stop, low deg race…

    1. I agree – it seems like teams’ modelling of the unknown surface was way off.

    2. Yes (@come-on-kubica)
      20th November 2021, 9:56

      F1 trying to get interest in a boring one stopper.

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