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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: How Red Bull opened the door to a Norris upset

by Mark Hughes
7 min read

It wasn’t the four-team battle for pole that looked feasible through Spanish Grand Prix's practice sessions. Lando Norris and Max Verstappen – in that order - stepped it up when it mattered to leave Mercedes and Ferrari over three tenths behind. So what was responsible for the change in pattern?

There are two aspects to that question. Why were Red Bull and McLaren able to suddenly pull 0.3s on cars that were within hundredths? Then, how did the dynamics change between Red Bull and McLaren? 

Carlos Sainz – sixth fastest but on the same tenth as Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc ahead of him and the two Mercedes’ of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton ahead of them both – gave as good an answer to the first question as you are likely to get. “We realised around Q2, Red Bull and McLaren, when they turn up [the PU], they have an edge over us… When I look back at Suzuka, China, medium-high-speed tracks, long corners, it reminds me of Barcelona and there we were also a bit far back.”

He is not talking about a power issue. He means that with the increased corner approach speeds of the highest PU modes, the Ferrari (and probably the Mercedes too), strays into aerodynamic bouncing territory.

It’s there all the time on all the cars around Barcelona but intensifies less on the Red Bull and McLaren as the entry speeds into the fast corners come up. That extra speed from the higher modes (into Turn 9 and 14 in particular) is taking those rear floor edges near the tunnel’s choke point just that little bit closer to the ground, and the phenomenon bites.

At the reduced power modes and reduced approach speeds of practice, the Ferrari was no worse than the Red Bull and Sainz – fastest in FP3 – had dreams of fighting for pole around his home track. It was a mirage, as it turned out. 

“We are struggling in the high speed,” he continued. “We still have this bouncing phenomenon which gives us a very tough time. It’s killing the tyre a bit in sector 3 too. When you have a high lateral load in a high-speed corner you get the bouncing.”

All four Mercedes and Ferrari drivers were on 1m11.7s. Norris and Verstappen were on 1m11.3s, separated by two hundredths. A different league, as it turned out. 

There were other factors feeding into this, notably the much cooler track conditions of qualifying. This feeds into answering the second question too. Track temperatures on Friday running were between 45-47 degrees centigrade. Into FP3 they were still at a very warm 41 degrees. By qualifying that was down to 36 degrees and suddenly the tyres were working a whole lot better. The increased power together with the increased tyre grip just accentuated that bouncing effect. It’s just better controlled on the Red Bull and McLaren and those two fast turns of 9 and 14 highlighted the effect. 

The Red Bull is still best of all in those super-fast corners. It’s comfortably flat through them. In FP3 where Sainz and Norris were lapping at much the same pace as Verstappen, they were each having to make a brief lift through that 280km/h final turn (Sainz down to 61% throttle, Norris to 70%). They were taking time out of the Red Bull through the slower corners where the RB20 was suffering more understeer. 

So after FP3 Red Bull re-assessed. There was potentially a pole time in the RB20, but it wasn’t going to be easy to access. “The car wasn’t really stable enough,” explained Verstappen of why they chose to run a bigger wing for qualifying.

With the original wing, not only was the car’s balance going to make it tricky to extract its potential, but it was going to give the tyres a harder time too. And tyre degradation is heavy here and likely to be what determines who wins. So it seemed logical to go to the bigger wing. 

But then the cooler track came, which in hindsight would’ve helped them with its balance problems. So maybe it didn’t really need to switch to a wing which Verstappen reckoned to be, “a bit too draggy for qualifying.”

That balance problem had all been in the low-medium speed corners. In the fast stuff, the Red Bull’s underfloor advantage always seems to amplify. But, as recounted yesterday, the balance between low speed and high with all of these cars has become more on a knife edge as they’ve been developed to run ever-lower before encountering the bouncing threshold. The Red Bull was faster and more secure than the McLaren in the high-speed, but the McLaren resolved the conflict between low and high speed balance better. 

Which brought us to the moment of showdown: the final runs of Q3, with Verstappen on provisional pole, over 0.1s clear of Norris. It would have been easy for Norris to have surrendered, but as the McLaren has become a fully competitive car recently, he’s been focussing on dragging more from himself in the telling moments. And now was one of those moments. “I’ve spoken in the last few weeks about just not having that ability to unlock something more come qualifying – and of kind of finding a limit and getting a bit stuck. I found it hard to progress from there and get into a nice flow and rhythm.

"So we’ve been working pretty hard on the simulator and with my team on trying to improve on all these things because compared to others, compared to Oscar in some areas, I just wasn’t comfortable and wasn’t confident I could just go out and just do what I needed to do to get it done. But this weekend I came in with a different approach and re-set some things and I definitely feel like I’m on a better footing.

"The last couple of months the car has been coming more to what I want – definitely not to where I need it where I would be most confident, but we’re working on it and it’s all credit to the team because without the car we have today I wouldn’t be on pole.”

How exactly did that all translate? Verstappen was out before him and improved on his provisional pole by over a quarter-second. 

“There were a couple of places I knew I had to improve,” Norris recalled. “It was all in the high-speed stuff. So I knew I had to just be balls-out and do it…. Turn 9 and 14 were the two where the car’s moving around, it’s bouncing a little bit, just doesn’t fill you with confidence when the car’s moving around like that at such high speed. It can be quite unpredictable which at those speeds is a bit nerve-wracking.

"To commit and know when to take the risks… over the weekend I’d pushed the limits but maybe not on the very high speeds where the consequences are more. But after looking at the data I was losing almost two-tenths to Max in just those two corners. They were the corners where I was least comfortable and it was just about committing and hoping I came out the other side in one piece. That’s what I needed to do on that final lap and that’s exactly what I did…  It was pretty much a perfect lap and probably the best I’ve ever done.”

Comparing his first Q3 run to that balls-out final one, the telemetry shows a confidence lift down to 92% throttle at Turn 9 first time around, but a zero-lift 100% commitment in the last run. It brings him out onto the back straight 1km/h faster.

Into the final turn, on the first Q3 lap he dipped to 80% throttle part-way through (up from 70% in FP3) but on the final run that lift was to 91%. Still not the 100% of Verstappen, but the McLaren wasn’t running as much downforce as the Red Bull. 

“Yes I think the way the track grip increased as it got cooler meant there wasn’t as much potential for me to improve,” said Verstappen, “because we were already flat through those turns. Whereas for Lando’s car there was more to gain from the track grip.”

And that was the story of one of F1’s great qualifying duels. Maybe the first of many more between these two. 

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