The most enigmatic qualifying of the season takes place in Barcelona, with atypical results and therefore pleasant to watch. The only certainty continues to be Max Verstappen, the perfect interpreter for a RB19 that responds well to the updates to the base and diffuser brought to Spain. Right behind no one is exempt from the difficulties with the use of tyresmixing the positions on the starting grid and anticipating an open race for second place.
If we exclude the Verstappen-Red Bull pairing, today’s qualifying gave further confirmation of a trend seen in some races in this part. The group continues to be extremely balanced on Saturday, where a few tenths can cost you handfuls of positions. The recompacting is general, with the hand of waves of updates brought to the machines from Baku forward, as Carlos Sainz noted.
In Barcelona, however, there are many variables that have reshuffled the cards, starting from the track. On the new-old configuration and without having tested there in the winter, all the teams have struggled to interpret the layout since Friday. Drivers and engineers found themselves dealing with understeering cars at the start of the lap, then moving towards oversteer in the third sector as a result of the rear axle overheating.
Added to all this was the limited time available in testing to work on the set-up. On Friday, several teams had to pay some attention to evaluating the updates introduced between Monaco and Barcelona, while the third session on Saturday was thwarted by the rain. Just the water washed the track, and the humid conditions encountered in qualifying made it difficult to bring the tires into the optimal temperature window. The usual exception is Max Verstappen, able in each session to set the time on the first attempt, an indication of a Red Bull which, in addition to being fast, in the hands of the Dutchman has no problems hitting the operating window. Different scenario for Perez, eliminated in Q2, who didn’t seem to have managed to exploit his tyres.
Tires still protagonists
The difficulty in hitting the tire window saw big differences in the final result between the riders belonging to the same team. The difference in performance with “off tyres” that you would have under normal conditions was accentuated by the fact that every slightest deburring took the riders off the trajectory in the wet, still losing performance. The temperature of the tires though it was not the only variable to diversify the results among teammates.
In the press conference Carlos Sainz interpreted the result of Charles Leclerc as yet another hint of the SF-23’s chronic problems. From Vasseur to the drivers, throughout the year the Ferrari environment criticized the car’s excessive sensitivity and excessively narrow operating window. However, the result and behavior of Leclerc’s Red in qualifying appear too anomalous to be attributable to the tire factor alone. Charles complained of great difficulty in traction with the right rear in the left corners, dmaking sure of the presence of a fault in the machine. Shortly before qualifying, the Ferrari garage was the busiest with the cars and one wonders if even the slightest set-up adjustment hasn’t been altered in the rush. The Cavallino can however rejoice in the second place of Carlos Sainz, with the SF-23 which continues to perform at its best in qualifying. The front row this time arrives on an “enemy” track, with Ferrari which from Melbourne onwards has often suffered from balancing and porpoising in high-speed corners
Mercedes also found itself struggling with the chronic difficulty in lighting the tires on a wet track. As in Monaco though, the Brackley team pays once again for an incorrect set-up change before qualifying. The change during the race caused the W14 to suffer from porpoising, taking away the confidence of the drivers, especially Russell, and making it even more difficult to use the tires correctly. However, what happened is proof of two aspects. The first is that porpoising, albeit less severe than in the past, can recur if the teams focus on aggressive set-ups, especially in terms of ground clearance. Secondly, the car’s unexpected response to the set-up change tells of a team that has yet to explore and understand the W14 in its new configuration.
McLaren heroine of Saturday
Lando Norris has always been able to exalt himself in the wet, conditions in which he conquered his first pole position in Sochi. McLaren’s unexpected podium on Saturday also comes thanks to a combination of favorable conditions. In fact, the MCL60 is first and foremost a car capable of getting the tires up to temperature right away. The soft compounds available in Barcelona also offered a high level of grip, with the new tire helping to hide the balance gaps on the car. Also for this reason, McLaren are not particularly optimistic in view of the race.
The MCL60 is a car lacking downforce in medium-speed corners, when yaw angles and above all ground clearance are greater. On the contrary, when the car lowers at high mileage, the level of load released and the general balance improve considerably. The best times of the McLaren duo have just arrived in the fast corners of the last sector, with the high speed leans which have been described by Norris as the strong point of the car. Finally, the leveled asphalt of the Catalan track allowed the team to descend even further with the heights from the ground, enhancing its strength.
Aston Martin closed on Saturday below expectations. On the one hand, Fernando Alonso damaged the floor in Q1, but on the other the AMR23 is also a slow car in getting the tires up to temperature. Alpine confirms itself once again, which at least on Saturday continues to fight with the top competition on every type of circuit. I finally smiled at home Haas, excellent seventh with Hulkenberg. The VF-23 collects another good result in qualifying on a track full of high speed bends, outlining an interesting trend with the other positive results achieved in Jeddah and Miami.
On Saturday in Barcelona Carlos Sainz also spoke about the behavior of the renewed SF-23, updated in the bottom and in the bellies. Spanish has positively judged the new Red, recalling how Maranello did not try to find new performance with updates, but to take a different direction. Lando Norris also used the same words in returning to the bottom brought by McLaren in Baku, with which the team pushed development in a different direction without necessarily looking for performance right away.
Barcelona is also the first extra-urban track on which Mercedes has been able to evaluate its updates. Toto Wolff commented positively on the new package, defining it as a solid base and with improvements especially from the point of view of aerodynamic load. Furthermore, while various engineers have explained how the recent bodywork changes have been encouraged by the evolution of the cars, the Austrian manager offered a different perspective. For Ferrari and Mercedes it was important to remove an unknown factor from the table, conforming to Red Bull in some choices to have a fixed point and be sure that it wasn’t that aspect that precluded the SF-23 and the W14 from approaching the very first positions.
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