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Austin Friday Report: Who's Looking Quick in the Heart of Texas?

Written by Traber Burns


Image Credits: Chris Graythen/Getty Images


Formula 1 was welcomed back to the land of the free this Friday. For the third round in a row, the tour has switched continents, but the conditions still remain similar. Fortunately, for the drivers sake, this weekend will be a bit easier than Qatar. The humidity isn’t nearly as high, the wind isn’t a problem, and there isn’t any sand that’s being blown onto the track. The track surface is different as well. Some parts have been repaved in recent years, while other sections are extremely bumpy, especially the back straight. What is comparable to Qatar is the temperature, with Qualifying experiencing 35.6℃ (96℉) ambient heat and a track temp of 41.2℃ (106℉). While Saturday’s forecast is looking similar, it’s predicted to drop a few degrees on Sunday. It’s also the second sprint round in a row and the first sprint weekend in Austin, giving drivers and teams just one hour of practice before going straight into Grand Prix Qualifying.

Pirelli brought the hardest set of compounds for Japan and Qatar, but that changed this weekend. The middle bunch - the C2, C3, and C4 - will be used. Practice informed us that the medium tires have a big deficit to the soft tires this weekend over one lap pace. In theory, the softs shouldn’t be a viable option for the race with the high track temps this weekend. However, McLaren’s strategy in FP1 goes against that theory. The papaya cars were the only team to not run the soft tires, only running mediums in the first hour. McLaren have historically been easy on its tires, and with the slight drop in temperature forecasted on Sunday, use of the soft tires aren’t completely out of the question.

A thrilling qualifying gave us a surprise result, setting up an extremely intriguing grid for Sunday. The first two sessions were somewhat uniform, with the biggest shock being both Aston Martin’s getting eliminated in Q1. Q3 was where the sparks flew. The battle for second-best between the Ferraris, McLarens, and Mercedes turned into the battle for pole when Max Verstappen’s time was deleted for track limits on the exit of T19. Leclerc stepped up to capture the pole, followed by Norris and Hamilton. The field was extremely close overall, with top nine drivers covered by less than half a second. The podium is really anyone's guess at the moment.


Red Bull

Red Bull will have to give us a show to capture a win tomorrow. Both drivers had sloppy sessions, especially in Q3, where Max Verstappen’s first lap had a lackluster final sector. A closer look revealed that his teammate was a few car-lengths in front of him through the final corner, possibly causing Max to have a slide on the exit. His radio message was about as angry as everyone expected. His final lap would’ve put him on pole had he not run wide in T19, resulting in the lap being deleted. Throughout the entire day, the Dutchman had a sizeable pace advantage over everyone through the final sector. Max will start P6 on Sunday. Sergio Perez was nowhere to be found all day. The Mexican snuck into Q3 by just under two-tenths of a second and could only achieve a ninth place starting spot.


Image Credits: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton is really enjoying the new floor Mercedes this weekend. The seven-time champion has certain tracks that bring out the best of him, and COTA is certainly included in that. He’ll start P3, putting in a lap under 0.15 seconds to pole. On the other hand, George Russell was fighting the car all day and doesn’t look as comfortable as Lewis with the new upgrade. His first lap in Q3 was deleted, while his final run was good enough for P5. Unlike Ferrari and Red Bull, there wasn't ever a team where they looked to be the quickest, but this isn't a problem for them. The silver arrows have had great race pace all year when their drivers aren't tangling with each other.


Ferrari

Sprint weekends play well into the Ferraris strengths. One thing the prancing horses do very well is unload with a solid setup, resulting in them only having to make small adjustments and being able to gather as much useful data as they can. This practice session wasn’t their best showcase, but they steadily crept up the timing screens with each run. While Verstappen was always king of the final sector, the Ferraris were the closest matching him, and both drivers got it right on their final runs. Charles captured the pole, while Carlos Sainz put together a great two-thirds of a lap, but a slow first sector caused him to miss two tenths. He'll start P4.


Image Credits: Chris Graythen/Getty Images


Aston Martin

One word. Horrid. Aston did not get the smooth practice session they needed with their new upgrades, and it put them well on the back foot for the rest of the day. Both cars were sidelined for a decent chunk of the session with brake problems. Fernando Alonso was able to finish the session and get a small amount of testing in, but Lance Stroll only completed five laps before his practice ended prematurely. It doesn't look like the problem was completely solved when Qualifying rolled around. Both drivers made laps just fine, but when Stroll came in for a tire change, plumes of brake dust came out from behind the wheels as the mechanics attempted to change tires. A lack of running surely hindered their qualifying pace. Stroll's lap just wasn't quick enough, while Alonso got mired in traffic leading up to his final run. Both were eliminated in Q1. This was a Friday they really couldn't afford if they want to stay in front of McLaren in the contructors standings.


McLaren

Lando Norris came into the weekend lacking confidence in McLaren's ability to handle the slow corners of Austin. He doesn't think they’ll be as quick as they were in Qatar, and today revealed that this might be the case. They were able to match the leaders in the first two sectors, but out of the top four teams, they were consistently beat in the last third. At least, that was prior to Q3. Lando Norris found something in his final run, matching the Ferraris and vaulting himself up to P3. Piastri's did not have the same fortune as he had a poor middle and final sector. He starts P10.

Image Credits: Dan Istitene/Getty Images


Alpine

What a turnaround for Alpine. In practice, both cars looked awful, and it wouldn't have been a stretch to have predicted a double elimination in Q1. But whatever they found before qualifying worked wonders, as they were able to get both drivers into Q3. This kind of improvement has become a trend with them lately, as both the Japan and Qatar weekends have had similar 180s. They look like serious contenders for the bottom half of the top ten, starting seventh and eighth on Sunday.


Williams

Not the greatest Friday for Williams. Both cars had issues in Q1, resulting in their double elimination. Logan Sargeant's was hoping to put on a good performance for the home supporters, but that didn't materialize. His first lap was deleted, and his second lap was best described by Logan himself, saying "That was terrible man" after he crossed the line. Alex Albon couldn't do much better. He also had an odd comment after his final run, saying there was a surge during his lap. It's unsure how much time it cost him, but it certainly didn't help. A P18 for Albon and a P20 for Sargeant isn't ideal for Sunday, but there's still points to be had with a Williams that's quick on the straight at a track where overtaking is possible.

Image Credits: Chandan Khanna/Getty Images


Alfa Romeo

The Italian team is always a tricky guess when it comes to where they stand on Friday. Alfa Romeo look like they have pace, but they’ve had a trend of getting gradually worse as the weekend goes on. Even when qualifying goes well, they’ll often drop back due to their high tire wear and/or an overall lack of pace on heavy fuel. They still put in a decent performance in Qualifying today. Zhou Guanyu missed out on Q3 by less than two thousands of a second, while Valtteri Bottas might have put in a similar time if it wasn't for a mistake in the final sector. The pair will start 12th and 13th on Sunday.

Haas

Haas brought a special livery and a complete overhaul of an upgrade package to their home race this weekend. The new Haas looks more like a pre-season reveal than a mid-season adjustment with how much has changed. Like many teams have this season, the American team has caught some flak as the visible bits of the car look like a combination of Aston Martin and Red Bull. Their one lap pace is a definite improvement, and while that's a plus, the upgrade has another priority. At the moment, the primary goal for Haas is to reduce rear tire deg, the results of which we likely won't know until Sunday. What we do know is that they're qualifying result doesn't speak for their one lap pace. Nico Hulkenberg was in P1 at one point in Q1, but was eliminated after his final lap was deleted for track limits. Kevin Magnussen was able to sneak through, but a massive snap of oversteer in the esses during Q2 cost him a shot at Q3. Keep an eye on Haas during the sprint shootout tomorrow. There's definitely more lap time to be had.

Image Credits: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images


Alpha Tauri

Alpha Tauri is another team to have brought upgrades this weekend. There was definitely an improvement, with Yuki Tsunoda slotting into P11, missing out on Q3 by less than two thousandths of a second. Daniel Ricciardo was back in the car after his broken wrist. He didn't do terrible, but he was likely hoping for more. A poor final run yielded a P15 starting spot for Sunday.

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