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Formula 1

Four Imola F1 qualifying struggles with driver market implications

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
7 min read

Formula 1’s Imola weekend has been punishing drivers since first practice, but a highly competitive qualifying session proved particularly tricky for four who are easily under pressure.

A Q2 exit for Sergio Perez was one of the main shocks from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Saturday - with a slip-up that reminds Red Bull of what can happen when the field is tight and its second driver underachieves.

Both Perez and team-mate Max Verstappen had struggled on a difficult Friday for Red Bull and its upgraded car, but by the time Verstappen was celebrating a pole position that clearly meant more to him than any other this season, Perez’s session had been over for quite a while.

“It's a shame, when I see Max up there, we definitely had the pace to do a lot more today,” Perez admitted.

Perez could not match Verstappen’s step on Saturday, despite ending Friday optimistic there was a clear route to improvement.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, F1

He went off in FP3 with a mistake at Variante Alta at the top of the hill, then in qualifying made an error at the Tosa hairpin – leaving him agonisingly a few thousandths on the wrong side of the Q3 cut-off.

Perez put that down to the knock-on effects of an underwhelming first run in Q1, which meant he needed to burn another set of softs at the end of the opening segment. This left him on used softs for the first run in Q2, and the balance shift on new tyres for the second run meant too much rear grip and understeer.

Though Perez feels there was progress being made and doubtless he would have made Q3 without the error, this had the first air of a familiar underachievement. Red Bull’s under a bit more pressure now from rivals, the gaps are closer than ever, and when that’s the case its second car can easily go missing.

This is the first example of that this season. And as Perez is seemingly being kept in a longer period of ‘prove yourself’ this year than two years ago when his contract was last up for renewal, he can’t afford for this to become the start of a slump like last year’s.

A FAMILIAR RESULT

Logan Sargeant, Williams, F1

While Perez has generally made a good case for being retained this season, so this is just a blip rather than a big disaster, at the other end of the grid is a much more troubled case.

It is now being openly discussed by Williams team boss James Vowles that Logan Sargeant’s at “risk” of being replaced, although Vowles is very much framing that as a choice for next year - amid speculation that there could be an in-season change coming.

Vowles is probably saying nothing in public that hasn’t been made clear to Sargeant in private, but it felt significant that he did put it on record going into the Imola weekend. That coincided with Sargeant specifying he was focusing on the next few races and trying to do the best job he can. It’s not exactly quelled the feeling that Sargeant’s living on borrowed time.

Logan Sargeant, Williams, F1

And what did the hurry-up yield? A frustratingly familiar story. Sargeant was actually looking perfectly competitive after what he called a “grind” of a weekend, but all he has to show for it is qualifying slowest for the second time this season because his laptimes got deleted.

His best - illegal - effort was only a couple of tenths slower than team-mate Alex Albon despite Sargeant being stuck with an older, heavier, slower floor. Had that result stood it would have been fine – good, even, considering the circumstances.

“The weight, it's a light switch,” he said, “it's not really a question mark.

“It's laptime. So of course the sooner I get it the better.”

Asked if he has the time to wait, Sargeant replied: “Yeah, I'm just... again, just trying to do my best each weekend and just focusing on that.”

But the lap that effort yielded didn’t count, meaning all the stuff is irrelevant now, and yet again good pace means nothing because of a small mistake.

Which is pretty much the story of Sargeant’s time in F1, right at a time where he really needs to be showcasing something tangible to pull himself back from the brink.

‘MISSING A FEW TENTHS’

Daniel Ricciardo, RB, F1

Ninth on the grid, a first Q3 appearance in main qualifying since Mexico last year, and a pretty respectable two places and two tenths behind an on-fire team-mate: that’s pretty optics for Daniel Ricciardo, right?

Well, by his own admission, it’s not as clear-cut as that.

Ricciardo’s been comfortably second-best at RB this week and really had to haul himself into the top 10, whereas Tsunoda has looked a fixture at the front in every session. And Tsunoda seemed to underachieve with his final result.

“As a collective, for the team, obviously both of us in Q3 is really good,” Ricciardo said.

“Am I happy to still be missing a few tenths? No, obviously.

“It’s obviously the home track for Yuki, maybe he's driving here in his road car every day, but he was really quick from the start.

“I felt good in the second and third sector, just in the first sector I was really struggling in the high-speed changes of direction.

“Qualifying's done but I'm still going to have a long look tonight and see what I was missing. Because that was getting me, really, all weekend.”

Daniel Ricciardo, RB, F1

After beating Tsunoda in China, and having a lovely sprint race in Miami, Ricciardo seemed to be building some momentum following a tough start to the year.

But he was outclassed by Tsunoda in the Miami GP itself, the little hints of pressure from Helmut Marko keep on coming, and this feels like more of the ‘I just can’t do that’ vibe that had Ricciardo very downbeat back in Australia.

It means nothing in isolation, as every driver needs to be afforded off-weekends and sometimes a team-mate just does a better job. But Ricciardo seems to have some high-profile doubters and he can’t really afford to be blown away by Tsunoda – which he hasn’t here, by the headline numbers, but his own words paint a more accurate picture.

“I know there's still a bit more in me,” he said. “But when I get it together, I think it comes in pretty good form, like Miami.

“It's just trying to find that consistency within myself now. And days like today, I probably just have to be a bit more patient.”

CAN’T CATCH A BREAK

Kevin Magnussen, Haas, F1

It’s not raining for Kevin Magnussen at the moment – it’s pouring.

Magnussen's had a chastening season as Nico Hulkenberg’s lit up qualifying and races for a revitalised Haas team, led its championship charge, and banked himself a lovely Audi contract for next year onwards.

At the previous race in Miami, various transgressions left Magnussen close to a race ban, and his future with Haas seems to be seriously in the balance.

What Magnussen needs more than anything right now is a reset. Unfortunately, this qualifying result was the opposite, another layer shovelled onto the existing misery.

Magnussen trailed Hulkenberg all weekend, so another qualifying defeat was perhaps already on the cards and that would not be good for his cause anyway.

But he was much happier with the car in qualifying, felt he was quicker than Hulkenberg in Q1, and it has been made to look an awful lot worse by clear interference - eventually deemed worthy of a grid penalty - of his final run by McLaren’s Oscar Piastri.

“You have to ask whether we can do something different,” said Magnussen, who thinks this is the “fourth or fifth” time this year this has happened to him when it counts.

“We seem to be leaving the pits in the normal way, we're not doing anything different.

“The fact that we're just getting it so many times this year, it's just odd and unlucky, I guess.

“But it just seems like a bad excuse to say it's unlucky, there's got to be something that we can do about it.”

Kevin Magnussen, Haas, F1

The impeding left him over a second behind Hulkenberg - who popped up in the top three in that opening segment.

“I really liked the car, I was in front of Nico on both the first and the second lap,” he said.

“With the track evolution, I think that went our way with the limitations we have.

“So, not that surprised to see the performance, and double annoying to have this issue.”

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