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Qatar Friday Report: Who's Beating the Heat in the Desert Near Doha?

Written by Traber Burns

Credit: Qian Jun/Getty Images

The traveling circus of Formula 1 brings us to Qatar this weekend with the first ever sprint weekend to take place under the lights. With the sprint format, the itinerary includes just one practice session before parc ferme rules lock in the setups, giving the engineers a hectic beginning to the weekend. The one session wasn’t exactly representative either. For starters, the 4:30pm local start time isn’t ideal with the sprint and Grand Prix taking place at 8pm. With winds gusting up to 21 mph (34.5kph) bringing lots of sand on the track, track temp at 40.5℃ (105℉) - 9% hotter than it was for the start of qualifying - the conditions were tricky at best. That’s not even mentioning the track itself, which underwent resurfacing earlier this year. It was a headache for the competitors, but fine entertainment for us spectators.

The conditions conundrum won’t stop today either. Tomorrow’s sprint shootout is also set to take place at the same hour as practice did today, with the sprint at the same hour as qualifying. The prospect of a slightly mixed-up grid is certainly on the cards for Saturday. In theory, teams could be inclined to lean on data taken from the race in 2021, but with all the differences mentioned above, that may not be feasible.

The asphalt isn’t the only track change. The curbs have been changed from 2021 as well. This weekend, the Losail International Circuit’s solution to track limits is a one and a half to two meter drop off from the outside of the curb to the run-off. It certainly sounds like an effective solution considering the drivers would risk damaging the floor by running wide, not to mention a drop off of that size upsets the cars enough to diminish any gains in lap time. In practice, the FIA still had their hands full with track limits penalties. While the drop off in curbing helped, the width of the curbs are a little wider than the cars themselves, resulting in drivers being able to run wide and keep their speed up in certain instances.

Fernando Alonso believes that those who found success in Suzuka will likely find success here in Qatar as well. Normally, it would be wise to agree with that statement on the basis of Alonso’s knowledge alone, but it doesn’t take a two-time world champion to see the similarities. Both tracks have mostly fast corners with a couple of braking zones mixed in, and Pirelli is bringing the same compounds. The weather of Qatar’s nights are also comparable, with the wind, temperatures, and even humidity predicted at similar levels to the afternoon of the Japanese Grand Prix. The Spaniard was right. Even with the additional challenges this weekend, a resemblance is certainly there. Barring a couple of exceptions, the grid looks pretty similar to a couple of weeks ago. There was a difference with tire strategy in qualifying. In Japan, the strategy was to run as few laps as possible on the soft tire with the track temp as high as it was. Under the lights in Qatar, the track temp was slightly cooler, and some cars were able to hang on to their tires better than others. Some teams found success with a push lap, cool lap, and another push lap, while others like Alex Albon complained of losing rear grip after just a couple of sectors.

Who’s looking quick and who’s starting on the back foot? Here’s the team by team report.

Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Max Verstappen continued his dominant ways with another pole position, but it wasn't completely smooth for him. He had an odd incident with Carlos Sainz in Q2 when Sainz was on an in lap and Max was on an out lap. Curiously, the Ferrari driver looked like he was blocking Verstappen, prompting the Dutchman's radio response of "What is he doing, man? He's defending. Do you see that? I almost crashed into him." Then at the end of Q3, he was forced to abandoned his final run after running, but the track evolution wasn't high enough for anyone to challenge him, and he was able to cruise to P1. On the other side, Sergio Perez was unable to make it out of Q2 again, ending the session P13. It's these kinds of performances that he cannot afford right now. Speculation is already beginning over his replacement coming mid-season of next year, and it's not a crazy prediction at all. It's time for Sergio to buckle down.

Leading up to the weekend, McLaren were cautiously optimistic. The car had great pace in Suzuka, but both drivers listed the high and occasionally unpredictable wind conditions as possible problems for the MCL60. Come qualifying, the speed was absolutely there, but driver execution was lacking. A missed apex in Piastri’s final Q3 run cost him some time, resulting in a P6 starting spot, while Lando Norris had both lap times deleted. While not ideal, the pace is there, so a podium or two for McLaren is certainly not out of the question. The car is quite easy on its tires, so alternate strategies are an option for them.

Credit: Qian Jun/Getty Images

Speaking of lacking execution, Ferrari didn’t have the greatest day either. One of the biggest shocks of the day came when Carlos Sainz was eliminated from Q2. The Ferraris were one of the first teams to put a first banker in, and one of the last to go for a second - possibly a result of the car's heavy tire wear. Sainz’s first lap wasn’t great, and his second lap was aborted after running wide in turn seven. He was also one of the first to finish his final run, which simply didn’t cut it. To throw salt in the wound, Sainz is also under investigation for his incident with Verstappen. On Charles Leclerc’s side of the garage, the day wasn’t much smoother. He had an interesting moment with Fernando Alonso when he overtook him going into T1 at the start of his final run in Q1. Leclerc cited the maximum lap time as the reason why he was so close to him at the start of the lap. It didn’t matter in the end as both of them made it through, but it wouldn’t be the last time Leclerc complained of the maximum lap time. As is predicted with the Ferrari’s characteristics this season, both drivers struggled with the high speed final sector. Leclerc was only able to grab fifth, and on a weekend where Mercedes look strong, this was a qualifying they simply couldn’t afford.

So how strong were Mercedes? How about P2 and P3! They weren’t the outright obvious best of the rest on pace, but with Ferrari and McLaren’s woes, they were able to pick up the pieces on a track that should suit them well. With high tire wear and plenty of high speed corners, they should be set up for a solid points weekend. The only cloud hanging over them from qualifying is an investigation into Lewis Hamilton for failing to post the maximum lap time in Q1, so keep an eye out on F1 socials for the outcome of that inquiry.

Aston Martin had a couple of worrying moments in Q1, starting with Fernando’s incident with Leclerc resulting in him unable to get a final run in. Fortunately, the track evolution wasn’t nearly high enough to knock him out, as he put in a very solid banker lap earlier in the session to see him through. On the other hand, Lance Stroll didn’t have the same pace, missing a couple apexes on his final run and only getting P17. Back at the front of the grid, Alonso will start P4 after a well executed day for the Spaniard.

Credit: Aston Martin

The long, high speed corners of the Losail International Circuit simply haven't been kind to the Williams this weekend. Alex Albon complained of a lack of rear downforce and rear grip throughout practice, and it didn’t change when they got to qualifying. Overheating rear tires meant the Williams could only do one push lap before the grip was gone. In an odd moment of stewarding, Albon had a banker lap deleted in Q1 a full eight minutes after it was posted. On another note, Logan Sargeant looked to have a leg up on his teammate up until the very last second of Q1 when Alex just bumped him out. Albon still has a shutout in the qualifying battle, but hopefully this is a turn of form for the American. The pair will start 14th and 16th on Sunday.

After quite the turnaround from Friday to Sunday at the Japanese Grand Prix, Alpine look to have found their footing again. In a complete 180 from the Friday in Japan, today was uneventful and well-executed. As a preview to a larger upgrade package scheduled for Mexico, Alpine brought a slightly new side pod design, and so far it has worked. Both cars looked strong as they locked out the fourth row.

Alfa Romeo had a tale of two halves today. Zhou Guanyu had a nightmare Q1. He failed to get a solid banker lap during his first two runs with his engineer instructing him to carry more speed through the high speed corners. It went from bad to worse at the start of his final run when he was overtaken by Logan Sargeant on the front stretch, resulting in an abandoned lap and a P20 starting spot. Valtteri Bottas did not encounter any traffic problems as he was able to get himself in Q3. The Alfa Romeo have shown slivers of speed when it’s in the right window, especially in qualifying, and Valtteri put that on full display today with a P9 result.

Credit: Qian Jun/Getty Images

Haas had a similar day with Kevin Magnussen going out in Q1. Yesterday’s birthday boy had his second banker time deleted and couldn’t find the pace to transfer through during his last run. Nico Hulkenberg had a solid Q1, but could only muster P15 in the end after also having a lap deleted for track limits in Q2. The Haas is almost always better in qualifying than in the race due to its problems with tire wear, so it’s not exactly looking sunny for Haas.

After rumors of Daniel Ricciardo returning this weekend proved to be false, Liam Lawson was back for his fifth Grand Prix. Unfortunately his Friday didn't go well as he complained about, understeer, oversteer, and generally unpredictable handling throughout qualifying. The Kiwi will start 18th. Yuki Tsunoda also complained of similar problems, but found a way to climb to P11 by the end of Q2. The Alpha Tauri has had solid race pace all season and can be easy on its tires, so don't be surprised to see them sneak in some points finishes this weekend.


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