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2018 F1

Qualifying Analysis – 2018 French Grand Prix

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Lewis Hamilton claimed the maiden pole position at the 2018 French Grand Prix since the event’s return on the F1 calendar after a 10-year hiatus and the 75th of his career. The Briton was followed by his team-mate Valtteri Bottas who qualified with the second fastest time to complete a front row lockout for Mercedes. For Mercedes, it is only their second front-row lockout this season after Spain. Taking the final podium qualifying place which is the third spot on the grid was Ferrari’s, Sebastian Vettel.

For the Silver Arrows squad, the momentum built smoothly from Friday to Saturday after they received an upgraded engine which they call the ‘Phase 2.1’. Hamilton dominated all three sessions of the qualifying, while the Ferraris turned around their Friday performance as expected, and pace wise slotted in between the Mercedes and the Red Bull Racing team drivers.

Although the Brackley squad had the qualifying advantage here, one also has to bare in mind that Barcelona, Paul Ricard and Silverstone were the three circuits that were resurfaced at the behest of Pirelli. According to speculation, Mercedes brought it to the attention of the tyre maker, that they were unable to manage certain compounds at certain circuits, due to serious safety concerns. They feared there would be a tyre burst or extreme degradation with the new Pirelli compounds. So with the French circuit being one of the three that have new asphalt, it could aide Mercedes but Ferrari will have the advantage at other circuits.

For Vettel, it was a decent qualifying given that he had grip, and balance issues and also encountered traffic in the first two sessions. The German described his lap in a French phrase saying it was a bit ‘comme ci comme ca’ meaning neither good nor bad. For his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who looked stronger in Q1 and Q2, it was a disappointing sixth place on the grid. The Ferrari drivers used the ultrasoft compound throughout all three sessions of the qualifying, unlike Red Bull Racing or Mercedes who completed Q2 on the supersoft tyre. On the final attempt of Q3, Vettel was able to get close within three-tenths of Q3 while Raikkonen could not get a clean lap to improve his lap time. The Scarlet squad does hope that they don’t have a repeat of Barcelona, where they were at their lowest point when Mercedes was at its best.

Red Bull Racing team drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo split the two Ferraris by finishing fourth and fifth row respectively. The two drivers attempt the Q2 of the qualifying session on the supersoft tyre, however, Ricciardo was struggling in the eighth spot, a switch to the ultrasoft tyres later in Q3, did put them in a more competitive place on the grid. Ideally, since they brought three sets of soft tyres each and were seen doing qualifying sessions on them on Friday, one expected them to qualify on that tyre and attempt a fairly longer first stint to have an advantage over their rivals. With both drivers being exceptional over-takers, the soft tyre was worth the gamble, however, the rain and dropping temperatures would have meant more time to get those tyres within the optimum temperature window in the qualifying session.

The Q3 session being interrupted by red flags brought out by Romain Grosjean’s crash, also caused trouble for the top 6 drivers since they had lesser time to get their tyres within the temperature window in the final stint of the session. The Frenchman crashed his car at Turn 4 into the barriers ending his session, despite his car being competitive and the best of the middle-field pack this weekend. His team-mate Kevin Magnussen managed to secure ninth spot on the grid.

The star performer of the qualifying session was Alfa Romeo Sauber’s Charles Leclerc who secured eighth spot in the final session of qualifying. The Ferrari junior driver initially clocked the 11th fastest time in Q3 and in Q2, he edged out Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg by a narrow margin of 0.020 seconds and 0.060 seconds respectively by securing P10. And in Q3, he went the extra mile to edge Magnussen’s Haas, and finished behind Renault’s Carlos Sainz who finished seventh. The Monagasque’s performance was more than praiseworthy today, and it has started to speak volumes of his talent, turning many heads. The Sauber car has a Ferrari engine but some serious fundamental flaws in its design, however the young ferrari driver seems to not just outqualify his team-mate by a mile every time but also extract the maximum best he can, like his predecessors Alain Prost, Fernando Alonso or even Raikkonen who also debut with Sauber. At this stage, many in the sport would say his performance alone will force Ferrari to take a decision on their driver pairing.

For the Renault team seventh place has been their best spot occupied by Hulkenberg and Sainz in turns at the races so far this season. They seemed like they were going to be edged out by Haas this weekend, but managed getting at least one car into their favourite spot by the end of the day. All three french drivers did not have the ideal qualifying performance they

A team scrutinised for their qualifying performance was McLaren, who have not been able to make it into the Q2 session for the second consecutive race weekend. According to Zak Brown who addressed the media post qualifying, there are some ‘weak areas’ relating to the aerodynamic areas of the car, which cannot be simulated in the wind-tunnel and have to be resolved on track. According to the Woking team CEO, those weaknesses are hurting their qualifying performance. The team’s late start to their development curve and limited winter testing is also one of the reasons they haven’t been able to resolve their chassis issues and integrate the engine into their package.

The tyre strategies tomorrow should be a one stopper for some, a one stopper with the longer stint on the supersoft and shorter stint on the ultrasoft, ior vice versa for the ones who start on the ultrasoft tyre. So Mercedes and Red Bull Racing drivers will be starting on supersoft tyres, however the Ferraris will start on the ultrasoft. But when it comes to degradation the former two might not have an advantage over the scarlet squad as the difference in degradation between the two tyre compounds is not much. The mandatory tyre compounds are supersoft and soft, maybe the teams outside the top 10 use the soft tyre, but most in the top 10 will opt for an ultrasoft and supersoft compound combination. On the other hand, Hamilton and Vettel have brought only one set of soft tyres each to this circuit, and probably wont use the tyre compound as it would be a risky option.

However one can see many teams or drivers opting for a two-stop strategy to aid them up the grid. If there are two stop strategies, it would make the race very interesting as the grip demanding circuit, will play a key role when it comes to tyre management. When one says demanding on grip levels, it usually refers to the track being harsh on they tyre wear, causing sliding and wheel spins, and an example of it, is the number of drivers who went off-track in all three practice and qualifying sessions. In qualifying, drivers can tend to be cautious, but in race trims one can expect a lot of yellow flags and a safety car period or two, due to drivers going off-track. As far as overtaking goes, there could be some drama at the first lap, some passing in the DRS zones and maybe some overtaking at the starting of sector three.

To string a perfect lap at this circuit, means the perfect corner exits and proper braking at the right point, or it can cause wheel spins, tyre degradation and affect the overall balance and performance. Braking at the right point is key specially after the long Mistral straight, and an error there can affect the overall performance, and cost more than a few tenths. With cooler temperatures on the forecast tomorrow and maybe a bit of precipitation, one could see the slick tyres play a part. Due to the changed weather forecast, data form long run simulations in practice might be irrelevant compared to the anticipated race conditions. The race start as been postponed by two hours to avoid a clash with England’s football World Cup game, and is scheduled to start at 4:10 PM local French time.

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