The black sky cloud burst which brought out the Interlagos red flags just after the top 10 had completed their first Q3 runs sure looked dramatic. But it was the severe wind which preceded the rain which was more influential in shaping the grid, sending the aero-sensitive cars haywire through the twists of the middle sector.
Regardless of the potential for an upset, it was the sure-footed Verstappen/Red Bull combination which prevailed yet again.
Not that he realised as much as he crossed the line at the end of what he felt was an awful lap. “Zero f***ing grip on this set,” he unloaded to his engineer, believing the problem to have been the tyres. “What the f***?”
The calm voice of Gianpiero Lambiase responded with a soothing bit of information. That it was like this for everyone and that he was P1. “I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Verstappen reported later. “That the wind had such an effect on the balance.”
The track was just beginning to get a smear of light rain in the last sector, but the wind was far more damaging to the laptime. At 0.7s off his Q2 time, the lap which stood as pole would not have even got Verstappen through to Q3.
The Red Bull may have felt like an unresponsive, understeering lump through the tight twists of the middle sector. But actually it was far better through there than anything else. The heavy gusts which later showered much of the pit straight with leaves picked up on the way here and pulled off the grandstand roof, giving the cars a big tailwind through Turns 8 and 10 in particular - and wildly differing grip levels from one turn to the next.
“From sector two onwards there was just no grip,” reported Charles Leclerc, who qualified his Ferrari second, around a quarter-second adrift of pole. “I was thinking of just coming in but the team told me to complete the lap. You had no idea where the balance of the car was as you arrived at the next corner. I thought I was P10 for sure.”
Lance Stroll, third fastest ahead of Aston Martin team-mate Fernando Alonso, echoed their stories. “I was locking up wheels and missing the corners everywhere. It was a mess. But it was good for P3,” he beamed.
There were differing degrees of influence on the circumstances for each of the top trio. Even before the wind arrived with its mischief, Red Bull and Verstappen were just plain quicker than everyone with the possible exception of the McLaren.
But McLaren was taken out of the Q3 reckoning by getting out too late - eighth and ninth - and therefore finding the rain which had begun to fall lightly at Turn 1, which Leclerc immediately ahead had just missed. Oscar Piastri nonetheless went second quickest through that first sector, but was possibly running just a little too close to the edge. Even before he spun away his lap at Turn 12, he’d had a major moment through Turn 10.
Q3 sector times
|Position||Driver||Sector 1||Sector 2||Sector 3|
In the calmer conditions of Q1 and Q2 the Red Bull and McLaren had an apparent edge over Aston, Mercedes and Ferrari, in that order but close enough that it would have all come down to the quality of each driver’s individual laps. The Aston was clearly in a much happier place than of late, Alonso having gone fourth in Q2 and Stroll having gone sixth in Q1. But that improved balance combined with a sharp pitlane call put them in a strong position.
Leclerc reckoned second was better than Ferrari would have achieved under normal circumstances. “In the cool track conditions [35C in Q2] we struggle a bit more so I don’t think we’d have been right there.”
This position was all about Leclerc’s ability to improvise. It was a terrific lap under the circumstances and brought to mind his brilliant Q2 lap here on slicks in the damp in the 2018 Sauber which got him into Q3.
The Ferrari pair were among the later cars out of the pits, something which team-mate Carlos Sainz (0.8s slower than Leclerc and down in eighth) reckoned was a serious penalty.
“We were just unlucky with the weather,” said Sainz. “Being one of the last to leave the pits with the cold tyres and the temperature dropping and the rain coming, the gusts of wind... I’m a bit disappointed, obviously, because we were very late to go out and we missed the chance to get a good lap. I was P8 in the queue and I qualified P8. The guys in P9 and P10 in the queue qualified behind me, so it was clear that the later you were going the slower the track was going, so, it was not ideal.” Leclerc got out only two places ahead of him, though.
Aston Martin was very sharp in getting its cars to the head of the pitlane, Alonso ahead of Stroll. That way, even if it meant they were there a long time with their tyres cooling, they got to dictate their own prep laps - and the Aston, just like the Ferrari, is a car which can switch on its front tyres pretty quickly. The Mercedes by contrast requires a harder out-lap and was definitely disadvantaged more than the others by the cooling tyre temperatures. Lewis Hamilton went fifth despite being the slowest in the first sector.
Sergio Perez ultimately lost his lap through the yellow flags for Piastri’s Turn 12 off, but even before then, it had not been shaping up into a great lap. He’d left it later than anyone and his tyre prep lap was badly compromised by having to keep out of the way of the two Aston Martins on their attack laps. He was already 0.4s down on Verstappen when he encountered the flags.
It’s an ill-wind which does no-one any good. This one didn’t help Perez or McLaren, but for Leclerc and Aston it was a great boon. Verstappen, you sense, would have been first regardless.