Qualifying at Mugello’s Tuscan Grand Prix might have looked like business as usual from the result, but it was the first ever competitive F1 session at the Italian circuit.
From the media sessions which followed, it’s clear drivers are already big fans of the high-speed track.
Mugello becomes an instant favourite
It’s easy to see why Mugello has become an instant hit among F1 drivers. It has the winning combination of fast corners, an undulating layout and a long pit straight where the cars top out at 200mph with the help of DRS. There are just six braking points around the lap and 72 percent of it is spent with the throttle pinned wide open.
The most spectacular section of track runs from Turn 6, known as Casanova, through to Turns 8 and 9, known as Arrabbiata 1 and 2. The drivers enter Casanova at 180mph, pull lateral G-forces of over 5.2G through Turn 7 (Savelli) and continue through the first Arrabbiata flat-out at 175mph.
“It’s crazy,” Lewis Hamilton said after claiming pole position. “I don’t know if people are seeing it on TV, but you’re going through Turns 6, 7, 8, 9 at like 170-180 mph, and the G-force we are pulling through there is just insane. It just gets more and more as you get through 8 and then through 9.”
And if you think it’s breathtaking watching from the outside, it’s nothing compared to what is going on inside the cockpit.
“We’re holding our breath from Turn 6 all the way up until the exit of 9, so until we are braking for Turn 10 we’re probably holding our breath,” Daniel Ricciardo said. “It’s so fast and you’re holding on, it’s on the edge around here.
“It’s one lap for qualifying and you put it all in. Once I crossed the line I was like ‘huhhhh [exhaling sound], alright’, so it did take a bit out of me.”
But as impressive as the middle sector of the lap is, it’s the first and final sectors where the drivers are making the difference in terms of performance.
“The cars are probably too good [for the middle sector], even if you’re having a little lift, you’re not going to make a massive difference in there,” Ricciardo added. “Nonetheless it’s a very ballsy circuit, you do need a bit of courage through there.
“But I would say the first sector is probably the trickiest, I think the second, even if you have a little lift in 7, you get back full for 8 or 9 and you don’t lose that much. Sector one, putting that together, 2 and 3 and 4 and 5, that’s more challenging to get the lap time out of it there.”
In trying to find some time in the first sector, Ricciardo’s teammate Esteban Ocon pushed beyond the limit and ended up spinning on his final attempt in Q3. The fact the track punishes mistakes with gravel traps rather than offering extensive run-off areas only adds to the appeal.
“It was my mistake,” he said. “I decided to go for it, and went a bit over the limit. And this track bites you if you go a bit over that limit.”
The hope now is that it provides good racing on Sunday. Support races in F2 and F3 have helped dispel the assumption that cars won’t be able to race wheel to wheel, with the long DRS zone setting up a number of overtaking opportunities through the first sector. Of course, F1 cars are wider and more susceptible to losing performance in the wake of another car, but the early signs are good.
Can Red Bull take the fight to Mercedes on Sunday?
Max Verstappen may not have had the pace to fight Mercedes for pole position on Saturday, but it was the closest Red Bull has been to pole position all year. That’s a positive sign for both the race and the rest of the season as it appears Red Bull is on the verge of a breakthrough with the handling of its car.
What’s more, Red Bull’s setup direction, which appears to be a lower downforce approach than Mercedes’, was clearly taken with one eye on Sunday’s race. While it sacrificed lap time to Mercedes in the medium-speed corners in qualifying, it means the Red Bull is the faster of the two cars along Mugello’s one kilometre straight.
If the Red Bull has the pace to stay within a second of the Mercedes cars through the high-speed corners, there’s no doubt Verstappen will attempt a move into Turn 1 at some point during the 59 laps.
“I would hope so,” Verstappen said when asked if he would be able to take the fight to Mercedes, “but first of course, we have to be able to follow. We don’t know how quick they’re going to be in the race so first let’s see if we’re able to, and then of course if we are, we’re going to put the pressure on.”
Red Bull’s other advantage compared to recent races is Alex Albon’s fourth place grid position, giving them the potential to mix up strategy and try to force Mercedes’ hand with the timing of pit stops. Combined with some discussion over whether the fastest way to the flag is a one-stop or two-stop and Red Bull could have its best shot at victory since the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Back to reality for Gasly
Life comes at you pretty fast. Six days on from his remarkable win at Monza, Pierre Gasly had a more modest qualifying performance, being eliminated from the first qualifying session. He’ll line up 16th.
We’re not getting carried away by it – it’s hardly a shock like last week was, but it does well to illustrate just how big a result that was for the French driver. Alpha Tauri looked quick at points on Friday but given the competitiveness of F1’s midfield pack right now, small errors can be punished and it looked like Gasly made at least one on his decisive Q1 lap.
“It’s obviously a very, very disappointing qualifying for us after a great result,” he said afterwards. “We did a massive step back in qualifying.
“We did a few mistakes which didn’t happened so far this season and unfortunately in this midfield, with the margins we have, they were really costly.”
Gasly was keeping things in perspective after the session.
Asked if the disappointment was heightened given the massive contrast to his performance last week, he said: “No, not really. It just shows the reality of where we are in this midfield.
“Last week was exceptional, but we know that in this midfield it is so tight. If you make mistakes as we did today, yeah, there is no room for errors.”
Podium chance for Albon?
Gasly’s win raised more speculation about his future and what happens to the man who replaced him at Red Bull, Alex Albon. Red Bull has been consistent in saying he will remain with the team and it might not be a coincidence he followed up Gasly’s win with his joint best qualifying performance of the season – he hasn’t qualified as high as fourth since the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
Albon was still a good way behind Verstappen, finishing 0.4s down in Q3, but that’s hardly a new story. What’s hurt Albon so much this season is qualifying the Red Bull out of position and spending his Sundays working on making up lost ground. There’s no doubt here the Red Bull is the second quickest car so making sure he joined Verstappen on the second row of the grid is encouraging going into the grand prix.
With big doubts about how easy overtaking will be during the race, Albon is wary of how important his getaway off the start line will be.
When asked if he felt a podium was in reach, he said: “That’d be nice!
“Yes, we’ll see, it’s a long run into Turn 1. We haven’t been the greatest off the line but we’ll see what we’ve got.
“It’s going to be hard overtaking here, but degradation is looking pretty good and I think the last corner isn’t that bad to follow. It’s not like Barcelona where it’s all traffic jam and waiting for someone to leave the chicane. Here, it’s more you can find the line to get some clear air and stay close. Hopefully that means we can do something with strategy.”