Jeddah part two? Why Hamilton feels confident despite missing pole for title-decider

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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Despite qualifying second, unable to challenge Max Verstappen’s pole time, Lewis Hamilton said he feels in a “good position” starting the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

His hope is that starting on the medium tyre compound will give him a strategic advantage over his soft-shod rival. And, importantly, it lessens the pressure on Hamilton to get ahead of his rival at the start.

Hamilton smelled a ruse in the mid-qualifying lock-up which led Verstappen to swap his mediums for softs in Q2, meaning he would start on them. “I’m always kind of sceptical with everything, so it’ll be interesting when we go back and look at the information and onboard laps,” he said.

Sitting next to Verstappen, Hamilton observed: “It’s very rare that people lock up in turn one.” He suspects Red Bull always intended to start the race on softs. “I think we’ve got the right tyre but I guess we’ll see tomorrow.”

Hamilton suspects starting on softs was always Verstappen’s plan
Pirelli brought the three softest compounds in their range, the C3, C4 and C5, to the revised Yas Marina circuit. Behind pole-winner Verstappen on softs and the medium-shod Mercedes, third-placed Lando Norris is also on soft tyres. He’s also on the racing line, and Hamilton will be anxious to ensure the McLaren doesn’t sweep by and separate him from his target.

The other soft-shod Red Bull of Sergio Perez in his wheel-tracks will be another concern. Failing to pass the Red Bull ahead of him at the start may prove an inconvenience; falling behind the other could be disastrous.

The changes to the Yas Marina layout potentially allow a driver with a starting advantage to carry it further into the lap. Where drivers previously funnelled into a single file parade, the new and more flowing early sequence should allow them to stay alongside further. The opening laps of the Formula 2 races were alive with three- and even four-wide action.

Although the considerably faster F1 cars can’t pull off manoeuvres like that with such ease, two cars could easily follow each other for the entire first sector, especially with the possibility of slip-streaming down the back straight.

Much has been made of the possibility of a collision between the two contenders, particularly after FIA F1 race director Michael Masi reminded everyone watching that points deductions are an option for the stewards if they suspect someone has done the dirty. Given that, and what’s at stake, it would be unwise for either driver to risk a retirement.

If Verstappen can feel confident about keeping Hamilton behind at the start, Mercedes will expect their choice of strategy to bring them into contention later in the race.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine, Yas Marina, 2021
Ocon’s practice pace shows Verstappen’s strategy can work
How far will Verstappen be able to get on his softs? Few drivers have explored their limits, except Esteban Ocon. In second practice he took a set of soft tyres on a 16-lap stint that saw the Alpine lap fairly consistently, though at somewhat pedestrian 1’30 lap times.

There was no significant drop-off in Ocon’s times over the stint, his final lap being one of the faster ones but without knowing how heavily fuelled the car was it’s hard to say whether that could correlate to race pace. Verstappen did an eight-lap soft tyre stint where he lapped considerably quicker (times much closer to 1’28) but of course, over a shorter distance and with potentially lower fuel.

But Ocon’s stint shows the softest tyres in Pirelli’s range may not necessarily be as great a disadvantage over a race stint as they have been at other tracks. The cooling surface over the dusk sessions in Abu Dhabi may also help.

How hard Verstappen has to push his tyres may prove critical. If it’s Hamilton filling his mirrors he may be unable to relax. If it’s Norris or – best-case scenario – Perez, he can coax that soft rubber.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2021
Passing may still be tricky at Yas Marina
He may have to exercise particular restraint at the exit of turns five and nine – the two quick left-handers, where heft kerbs lie in wait. These have been only partially eased in response to the concerns raised by Pirelli over the ‘pyramid’ kerbs which are similar to those which led multiple drivers to suffer punctures at Losail.

Verstappen on soft rubber being chased down by Hamilton on harder tyres was the scenario we saw in their nail-biting battle at Jeddah. Hamilton prevailed in that fraught contest having repeatedly used his straight-line speed to pressure Verstappen.

But he doesn’t have the same edge this weekend, as the speed trap below shows, Verstappen having opted for a lower downforce configuration. That change wasn’t made without problems for Red Bull, however. Ahead of final practice and qualifying, Verstappen’s rear wing had to be adjusted and repaired.

Nonetheless Hamilton goes into a race where he must out-score Verstappen confident that he’s on the right tyres and the right strategy. The final chapter of this thrilling season will reveal whether he was correct, or of Red Bull have pulled off a championship-clinching masterstroke.

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full


Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Max VerstappenRed Bull1’23.3221’22.800 (-0.522)1’22.109 (-0.691)
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’22.8451’23.145 (+0.300)1’22.480 (-0.665)
3Lando NorrisMcLaren1’23.5531’23.256 (-0.297)1’22.931 (-0.325)
4Sergio PerezRed Bull1’23.3501’23.135 (-0.215)1’22.947 (-0.188)
5Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’23.6241’23.174 (-0.450)1’22.992 (-0.182)
6Valtteri BottasMercedes1’23.1171’23.246 (+0.129)1’23.036 (-0.210)
7Charles LeclercFerrari1’23.4671’23.202 (-0.265)1’23.122 (-0.080)
8Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’23.4281’23.404 (-0.024)1’23.220 (-0.184)
9Esteban OconAlpine1’23.7641’23.420 (-0.344)1’23.389 (-0.031)
10Daniel RicciardoMcLaren1’23.8291’23.448 (-0.381)1’23.409 (-0.039)
11Fernando AlonsoAlpine1’23.8461’23.460 (-0.386)
12Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri1’23.4891’24.043 (+0.554)
13Lance StrollAston Martin1’24.0611’24.066 (+0.005)
14Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo1’24.1181’24.251 (+0.133)
15Sebastian VettelAston Martin1’24.2251’24.305 (+0.080)
16Nicholas LatifiWilliams1’24.338
17George RussellWilliams1’24.423
18Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo1’24.779
19Mick SchumacherHaas1’24.906
20Nikita MazepinHaas1’25.685

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Max Verstappen16.842 (2)35.643 (1)29.613 (1)
Lewis Hamilton16.834 (1)35.783 (4)29.795 (2)
Lando Norris16.967 (3)35.844 (6)30.120 (7)
Sergio Perez16.976 (4)35.696 (3)30.047 (5)
Carlos Sainz Jnr17.113 (12)35.837 (5)30.040 (4)
Valtteri Bottas17.024 (7)35.871 (7)29.986 (3)
Charles Leclerc17.071 (10)35.693 (2)30.115 (6)
Yuki Tsunoda17.011 (6)35.974 (8)30.165 (9)
Esteban Ocon17.053 (9)36.049 (11)30.226 (11)
Daniel Ricciardo17.076 (11)35.977 (9)30.210 (10)
Fernando Alonso16.985 (5)36.169 (16)30.249 (12)
Pierre Gasly17.038 (8)35.999 (10)30.156 (8)
Lance Stroll17.290 (18)36.117 (13)30.597 (15)
Antonio Giovinazzi17.236 (15)36.152 (15)30.514 (13)
Sebastian Vettel17.257 (16)36.143 (14)30.729 (16)
Nicholas Latifi17.281 (17)36.465 (19)30.592 (14)
George Russell17.130 (13)36.401 (18)30.766 (17)
Kimi Raikkonen17.136 (14)36.112 (12)30.941 (18)
Mick Schumacher17.419 (19)36.340 (17)31.114 (19)
Nikita Mazepin17.522 (20)36.741 (20)31.295 (20)

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Max VerstappenRed BullHonda328.3 (204.0)
2Sergio PerezRed BullHonda327.7 (203.6)-0.6
3George RussellWilliamsMercedes325.7 (202.4)-2.6
4Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari325.3 (202.1)-3.0
5Fernando AlonsoAlpineRenault325.0 (201.9)-3.3
6Esteban OconAlpineRenault325.0 (201.9)-3.3
7Nikita MazepinHaasFerrari324.9 (201.9)-3.4
8Mick SchumacherHaasFerrari324.6 (201.7)-3.7
9Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda324.5 (201.6)-3.8
10Pierre GaslyAlphaTauriHonda323.9 (201.3)-4.4
11Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari323.6 (201.1)-4.7
12Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari323.1 (200.8)-5.2
13Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedes322.8 (200.6)-5.5
14Nicholas LatifiWilliamsMercedes322.7 (200.5)-5.6
15Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrari322.7 (200.5)-5.6
16Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedes322.7 (200.5)-5.6
17Daniel RicciardoMcLarenMercedes322.6 (200.5)-5.7
18Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes322.2 (200.2)-6.1
19Lance StrollAston MartinMercedes321.7 (199.9)-6.6
20Sebastian VettelAston MartinMercedes321.7 (199.9)-6.6

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Over to you

Who will win the 2021 drivers’ championship? Share your views on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the comments.

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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48 comments on “Jeddah part two? Why Hamilton feels confident despite missing pole for title-decider”

  1. Uffff you can feel the tension. I can sense this could go down to the last laps just like in USA. I can see Verstappen pushing the softs like crazy. Red Bull have thrown absolutely 110% for track position here just like in Saudi Arabia. We have seen that it is at time better to have a harder tyre if you are the chasing car for many laps, or only if you are Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.

    1. I think the USA start made Red Bull realize how important track position is vs more durable tyre and pace on the first stint. Mediums are good only if you are absolutely able to keep that place at the start.

      In Jeddah, I honestly think they were betting one more Red flag or safety car late in the race. They lacked a lot of pace for a straight-up fight.

      I honestly think they are the fastest car think weekend though. Probably something between Mexico and USA. Here I am to (hopefully) be proven wrong.

  2. Skinny rear wing, less drag, more tyre wear. This is Red Bull going aggressive with a 2 stopper. Confident they can overtake with less downforce on modified track. Expect soft-medium-soft with Max. Chasing the one-stopping Lewis on hards for the win in the last few laps. An enticing prospect…

    1. Does RB have another set of mediums for Verstappen?

      1. @greenflag are those flat-spotted mediums unraceable?

        Do you think perhaps the strategy is soft as long as possible, and then to hard to the end?

    2. So you reckon Hamilton will go from mediums to hards, rather than softs? Nearly every race here has always been a one stopper, it’ll be interesting if the track changes, change strategy that much. I reckon it’ll just be a straight right between the two – Verstappen on mediums Vs Hamilton on softs in the second stint.

      1. I guess it depends how long Hamilton can make those mediums going for. If less than half distance, then it’ll have to be hard, surely. Unless softs can do 20+ laps on lower fuel loads in cool temps at the end…

      2. if RB pits early-ish for Hards and try to run long then those tires should go off towards the end. If they dont run to the end then they’ll pit again and lose track position.

        Mercs will run longer, maybe to mid way, [or longer for Bottas ] and then hope their hards will be freash enough to out last the RB’s.

        The max distance on softs could be about 15 laps, they wont much of a distance/time advantage in that time. My money’s on Hamilton staying in touch, whilst keeping his tires fresh.

    3. They dont have another medium set. Need to go soft and hard.

      1. They have a used medium set.

  3. I don’t think Red Bull are going with a two-stopper, no way. The half a second max time delta between soft and medium makes it impossible to offset a pitstop. Last year, all front-runners stopped before lap 12. A soft – hard strategy may not be ideal compared to a medium – hard strategy, but with track postion key, RB not slower on the straights, and a chance for Hamilton to be jumped by Norris / Perez at the start, I don’t see this as straight forward. Not to mention that race pace, in general, right now looks better on RB. I thought this was like Jeddah, but now I’m reconsidering.

    1. @hahostolze So if events run normally, probably a big ask, a one stop would mean Verstappen stopping first, switching to hard tyres and dropping behind Hamilton, then getting ahead when Hamilton switches to hard tyres himself and the a race of cat-and-mouse with Hamilton with x-number of laps less wear chasing Verstappen at the end. Maybe but it sounds then that Verstappen’s only real chance is to stop a faster Hamilton from passing by any means necessary – as in Brazil and SA, but, supposedly, without the leeway he was given in those races, especially the first.

      It doesn’t sound that good. A two-stop with Max pushing the soft tyres as hard as possible and chasing down Hamilton sounds better for them – much easier, including in stewarding terms, to try to pass aggressively than defend wildly.

      1. @david-br agree with latter scenario. Problem red bull have is whether they have a good tyre to use between the two soft stints. A flat spotted medium vs a slow hard. V tricky call.

      2. This is why Bottas needs to be with in 30 secs of the leaders so that Verstappens comes out behind him, so Ham can pit and come out ahead.. im hoping this time around Bottas mananges to run longer without his tires failing like it did on that dodgy circuit last time.

    2. @hahostolze Agreed, I can’t see Red Bull planning a 2 stopper with so much at stake (assuming a “normal” race with no safety cars). The mistake in qualifying looked genuine from Verstappen and I do think Red Bull wanted to start him on the mediums. They are probably just trying to play down the mistake to (a) not let Verstappen dwell on it and (b) try get Mercedes thinking. On Perez’s side of the garage I think they were forced into starting the soft because Perez was a bit slower in Q2, so he needed that extra run to guarantee getting through to Q3.

      This is going to be an epic finale…

    3. A free or cheap pitstop, say SC, VSC or red flag, changes it all

  4. Set up perfectly for tomorrow. And I think the outcome will be fitting too… if Max keeps Lewis behind then he deserves the title. And if Lewis can get past Max then he deserves the title. As long as it’s clean of course.

    It looks like we’re set to see them run nose to tail again for the majority of the race. Can’t wait!

  5. I can’t see any scenario where max will let Lewis pass him cleanly so it’ll be down to the stewards to decide this one unfortunately

  6. I worry about Perez pitting first then Merc reacting hope Merc do not react just or if Hamilton is right behind Ves lap 20 they should go for the undercut and do 2 stops it force redbull into a decision stay out and be vulnerable or pit to cover. Merc need to be reactive do not have max chasing like in france

  7. I recall the camera zooming in on verstappens supposedly flat spotted medium and it looked fine. But I’m not sure why there would be subterfuge?

    Maybe RBR had no idea verstappen had that lap in the car for q3 and maybe they were trying to make sure Mercedes did not “cover” their two stop plan and also stop them from getting into t1 first.

    1. Yeah @dmw, I wondered that too. The flat spot may have been deliberate to try and get merc off starting on softs idea. Red Bull have engineered a difference in strategy deliberately.

      1. Looking at onboard and wondering why they even had to go for a second run when 1.23.1 time was definitely a top 10 time. So, they definitely staged this.

        Also, based on the onboard, it doesn’t seem that the flat spot is bad at all.

        So, they can use the Q2 mediums for the second stint.

        1. It wasn’t just the lap time though @macademianut – if Verstappen had gone through to Q3 on his medium-tyre run he’d have to have used the flat-spotted mediums for the race start. I wasn’t watching that bit of qualifying so I didn’t see how bad the flat spot was.

      2. But why make a flatspot to start on the soft? What good is it? The teams always start a lap on reds just in case. Verstappen could also have fnished that lap faster without flatspotting his mediums. 🤔

      3. Ruining a tyre deliberately and limiting your options doesn’t sound very smart, does it?

  8. I struggle to find a reason why Max would deliberately lock up in turn 1 to change strategies. Am I missing something?

    1. It was clear that RedBull were going to use the softs in Q2. Horner isn’t the Hollywood actor he thinks he is and his “ well now you know our strategy” when the tyre blankets revealed the mediums convinced me that their second run was going to be on the softs. The theory around the lock up is that it was to throw Mercedes off and make them think Max would prefer to be on the mediums, when in really the plan was always to start on the softs. I honestly think that was the case. Max is a worse actor than Horner and his “oh no, huge lockup” comment to what was actually a tiny lockup wasn’t fooling anyone. If they wanted to be on the mediums then Maxs first run was easily quick enough. This 100% wasn’t a forced strategy and is actually a win, win situation. If they win the race tomorrow they look smart. If they lose they blame the mistake for “forcing” their strategy and can moan about not having the pace. It’s RedBull PR 101.

      1. This! +1

  9. (@fer-no65)

    It doesn’t make much sense. I think they want to deniability.

    Softs-hard seems to be a sub-optimal strategy. But it is attractive to Red Bull because close racing favors Verstappen. He has two ways to win, being faster and crashing. Starting on softs maximizes his chances to gain track position, especially since they didn’t have confidence in getting pole.

    I think they wanted a little deniability. Just to make sure if the championship ends on the first lap it looks a little more accidental.

  10. Looking at last year’s race, I wonder how the strategy will play out this year if VSC comes out after 10 laps — perfect timing for soft tire to medium tire change for the front-runner.

    If it VSC converts to a full SC, it will be even sweeter!

  11. Certainly there’s a whole difference in potential strategies between the two main players.

    I just hope we don’t end up with a strategic advantage being nullified by a team, or sister teams car “suddenly” having a terminal fault and being instructed to pull over causing a safety car that completely changes the course of the race.

    With so many “helpers” out on track, it’s going to be very difficult for one driver in particular to work his way forward if he gets trapped back behind a strategically placed team mate or sister car.

    Add to that a “strategic” mishap (Singapore anyone?) and the discussions about the final result could get very interesting indeed.

    Lots to play out tonight – should be at least a very interesting first half.

    1. I’m sure RBR is betting on some type of VSC or SC after 10 laps. Someone’s engine might go out.

  12. As we saw in the last race, it only takes one ‘timely’ SC to undo your strategy forecasts. This championship might yet be decided by one cheap stop to make a mockery of track position.

  13. Quite low chance of Safety Car for the race under normal circumstances but we’re at high mileage for a lot of components, an engine or transmission failure in an unrecoverable spot could go it. There is much yet that could go wrong for either driver: a slow pit stop, power unit failures, drs failure, tire failure (particularly if running a soft-hard strategy.)

  14. Part of me hopes that Verstappen (or Hamilton) runs away with it and this race ends up being a massive snoozefest.
    We know what F1’s rulemakers are like; if this ends up being the finale of a lifetime, they’ll see that as a reason to change the rules to engineer a winner-takes-all finale every year!

  15. I don’t buy deliberate flat-spotting theory. Verstappen loses a set that way. And what plan did it throw Hamilton off? Did Hamilton want to start on softs and was unable to do so because Verstappen would now use softs (after he flat-spotting his mediums)? Don’t think so as Hamilton doesn’t need to do the opposite of Verstappen. Going into qualifying, it seemed like Mercedes would have a pace advantage over Red Bull and they can simply copy Verstappen’s strategy during the race if they have track position (similar to Qatar).

    I think the reason Mercedes are behind Red Bull is because they incorrectly estimated the the potential of how quick the cars would go as temperatures dropped. And hence, they went for a higher downforce wing as that would be required to generate enough downforce in the hotter conditions. But as temperature dropped, air became heavier and the lower downforce wing could also generate sufficient downforce. Add to that Max magic (which was in full force at Saudi too, albeit for only 26 out of 27 corners) and the pole position was lost by a whopping 3.5 tenths.

    The medium is still the better race tyre but I doubt how much Hamilton will be able to use it. But overtaking at the start won’t be easy as Hamilton has mediums vs Max’s softs. Going long with the mediums and for the overcut also seems difficult as Checo will force Hamilton to stop early (similar to Austin). And as the race goes further past sunset, and the temperature drops, the relative disadvantage of the skinny Red Bull rear wing will lessen. So, Hamilton overtaking Max in the later stages of the race seems less likely to me.

    I think the best chance of Hamilton overtaking Max on track is lap 6-7 until the 1st pit-stop (the timing of which Red Bull can dictate). I say this because until lap 5-6 the softs may have some sort of pace advantage. Post-which mediums will have a degradation advantage. Max’s Red Bull will also suffer from downforce till temperature drops.

    1. Great points.

      Does Mercedes still use their rear wing that stalls the diffuser to give higher straight line speed when DRS is not in use? If so, that could come in handy during the race when the cars don’t use DRS in the two DRS zones (unlike quali).

  16. Thank you to the FIA and the track owner who for the first time have changed the track at the last minute, which turns out suits the mercedes better.

    1. Pick whichever story line you like best ;-)

  17. Interesting that both Mercs were slow in Sector 2 looking at speed traps and also sector times?

    Sector 2 is just straights.

    Merc saving the top speed for the race ?

  18. Redbull has to 2 stops, unless there is safety car or Red flag, its advantage Mercedes. We saw in Jeddah the race pace of the Mercs, doing fastest laps on old tyres with no endplates on front wing.

    Lewis victory is pretty much ensured.

  19. I don’t really see that Mercedes has any advantage. On this track, the undercut is so powerful, that even if/when Max runs out of grip, he surely pits first, and then keeps his track position over Lewis after both have made their stops. So, are Mercedes again betting on coming close in the last few laps with fresher tyres? That is quite a gamble on a track that is notoriously difficult to overtake.

    1. Against a driver that will never be overtaken without pushing for contact.

      1. Hamilton is warned, so I do not think the Hamilton move (c) will be an option. You can only do it once a year I guess and he is already penalised for it this year.

  20. I don’t think there is anything that Mercedes will know for sure with the amount of sandbagging and theatrics that Red Bull have been displaying. They probably tried the same already in Jeddah, pretending to be struggling and then pretend to suddenly pull 7 to 8 tenths out of “nowhere” at the end of Q3. At least they knew better this time to give Verstappen two tries to set a lap.

    Red Bull were already looking faster on the long runs and the undercut will help Verstappen extra, so not sure how they think a slower Mercedes is going to benefit from going longer. Getting pole and hoping to stay ahead with a poorer start and less grip through turn 1 was pretty much their only play to keep Hamilton ahead and then hope to control the race from there.

    1. I agree that the better actors are at Mercedes. The rest of your story only exists in your dimension.

  21. The long runs of Mercedes in Jeddah on friday were miles ahead of RB. But in Abu Dhabi isn’t. RB looked competitive in the long runs on both soft and medium compounds. I dunno about the hard tire. Mercedes usually a little beter on hards. Man.. this is so bad for nu heart haha. If Max had a good start then Lewis will be on his rail for 56 nervous laps. I don’t see Max pulling away easy at all.

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