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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: The three drivers crucial to Verstappen's bounceback

by Mark Hughes
5 min read

Did Sebastien Buemi secure Max Verstappen this pole? Or was it Nico Hulkenberg?

For sure, Verstappen himself deserves much of the credit for delivering in a car which may not actually have been the fastest, for once. But those two friends of his definitely played their part.  

This was a special pole not because of how dominant it was, but because of how dramatic a turnaround it represented after Verstappen had struggled with the car’s balance throughout the three practices.

It wasn’t that the formidable-looking McLaren and Ferrari challenge had faltered either. Both those teams were significantly quicker in qualifying than at any other stage of the weekend. It was just that Verstappen and the team had found more. 

But exactly what is the team’s role in situations like this? “The unsung heroes are the 60 people working back at base – and the sim driver, in this case Buemi, putting in the long hard hours,” Christian Horner tells The Race. 

Verstappen had been all at sea through Friday with a front end that would just not cooperate. Tosa (Turn 7) and Acque Minerali (Turns 11-13) were the bogey corners, slow third-gear direction changes where the RB20’s refusal to rotate was bleeding laptime away – particularly to the McLarens.

With a few set-up changes and more front wing for FP2, Max was initially relieved to find the car much better on the medium tyre, but he was then bewildered to find that on the grippier soft it was borderline uncontrollable in these corners with a rear end trying to throw him off the track. 

With the car ill-balanced, it was not so surprising that his long runs lagged badly behind those of McLaren and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari. There seemed to be no happy middle ground between two contrasting types of imbalance according to which tyre the car was on. A radical rethink for Saturday was needed. As things stood at the end of FP2, the third row appeared to beckon! 

Was it Buemi?

That’s when the behind-the-scenes folk knew they were in for a hard shift. “It’s the graft that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see,” summarised Horner of what was behind the recovery.

The Red Bull is always at its most vulnerable at a front-limited track like this (see also Melbourne) but even within that constraint, the car was so far out of its window on Friday that neither Verstappen nor his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase had any ready answers. The McLarens, meanwhile, were a blur of balance and grip that looked a long way out of Red Bull’s reach. 

“From FP1 onward, Buemi will have done about 10-11 hours in the sim back at Milton Keynes,” reveals Horner. “They will have all been working into the early hours of the morning. The sim driver role is shared with Jake Dennis, but this time it was Buemi. But they are unsung heroes in the team working in the hot darkness of Milton Keynes and on days like today it plays a key and crucial role. 

“We have a team under Ben Waterhouse - which includes people like Simon Rennie and a great group of engineers, who are then working with ‘GP’ [Lambiase] trackside. It’s a full team effort. 

“A driver like Buemi or Dennis has the ability and experience to adapt their driving style to say, ‘Max will like this’ or ‘Checo won’t like that’. They are not just there trying to drive fast laps or tuning the car around themselves. They are working to give the drivers the best possible car for them. 

“Tosa and Turn 12 weren’t great for us. But the guys back at base got the car into a much happier window as we got a front end into it, rebalanced it, calmed everything down and then suddenly… bang.

"One thing Max doesn’t like is a car which just ploughs on. He could feel there was a big improvement into FP3, but it still needed further fine-tuning. With that tuning he was finally happy and Q1 was the first time we’d seen him at the top of the timesheets all weekend.  

“We’ve got an aero upgrade on the car this weekend, it’s stayed on the car, it’s delivering everything it’s supposed to. It was a matter of tuning the aero balance and matching that with the mechanical aspects.” 

That rebalance is evident when analysing where Verstappen made the time up over the two McLarens right behind him on the grid. He was around 0.2s faster than them in his previous bogey of sector 1, which made up the similar deficit now suffered to them in sector 3. Verstappen was virtually identical to Oscar Piastri in the middle sector.

The combined effect of all that was a lap six hundredths faster than Piastri, with Norris a further hundredth back, around 0.1s faster than Leclerc’s Ferrari. 

But there was one more factor...

Was It Hulkenberg? 

“Max is so instinctive,” says Horner. “On that last run on his out lap he can see his mate Hulkenberg coming so he gives him a nice tow down into Rivazza, knowing he will get payback on the start-finish straight. I could see exactly what he was doing.

"Following his time on the live data, you can see he’s five hundredths up from that tow into T1 [to The Race it looks more like over a tenth]. He got pole by six hundredths but Hulk contributed.”

So it was the combined effort of those two friends.

Given that Verstappen was around 0.5s off the pace on Friday and that we can attribute about half of that to the lower PU settings he had then, then we might say the unsung heroes bought him the bulk of his tiny pole advantage and that Hulkenberg just helped sure it up a little. So too Piastri's grid penalty actually gave him more of a safety blanket anyway.

But this was man hours more than opportunism – and not a little brilliance from Verstappen. “It feels fantastic when you turn it round like that after such a difficult start,” he enthused. 

“This morning the balance had shifted too much the other way, but we now had ways of tuning it. It was more difficult than I expected and I have to thank everyone for their work back at the factory.”

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