5 things we learned from Friday's on track action at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix
The grandstands around the iconic and picturesque Interlagos circuit in the city of Sao Paulo erupted when Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time in qualifying to take the Pirelli Speed King Award, as it gives fans hope this classic championship fight has plenty of juice left in the tank. Here are five things we learned from practice and qualifying on Friday…
1. Fresh Mercedes power unit makes a difference
Mercedes made the bold call to change Hamilton’s power unit – and incur the five-place grid penalty that goes with it – ahead of first practice for the Sao Paulo Grand Prix. They left the decision late, but ultimately felt it was the best thing to do in the long run, as it means he has two engines in the pool to rotate through the final four races.
Interlagos is a good place to take the hit, given overtaking is certainly possible. We’ve so far seen that the Mercedes is significantly stronger than Red Bull in the first and third sectors – where they have the edge in low drag – and that should allow Hamilton to make progress back through the field on track.
Add to that the belief that a fresh Mercedes power unit generates extra performance, which was evidenced in part by Hamilton’s supreme pace across all three segments of qualifying, before gradually tailing off – the reason for which the team have yet to determine. At this stage, the change looks like a very smart move.
2. Lewis Hamilton has his sparkle back
This has been one of Hamilton’s toughest campaigns, the Briton using every iota of his experience to keep himself in the title fight despite having the second-best car for most of this season.
Hamilton, usually a star on Saturday having already accrued a century of pole positions, has managed just four P1 spots this year in 18 attempts so far this year. On race day, he’s won just five times – and just once in the last 14 Grands Prix.
But for the first time in a while, Hamilton has the twinkle back in his eye. He may have an engine penalty that is going to make Sunday afternoon tricky, but such is his confidence in the car around Interlagos after just one practice and qualifying, you get the feeling he reckons he can overcome anything to come out on top on Sunday.
There could be a fly in the ointment, though. The FIA’s technical delegate found something was amiss with his Drag Reduction System (DRS)after qualifying and therefore referred the matter to the stewards. If they deem his car does not comply with the rules, he could be penalised for Saturday’s F1 Sprint.
3. Red Bull duo down but not out
Red Bull were soundly beaten on Friday, but with Hamilton set for a grid penalty on Sunday, and hotter conditions expected this weekend playing more in Red Bull’s favour, it’s no wonder there was no cause for panic on Friday evening in Brazil.
The word inside the team is that they believe they’ve got a good race car to fight on Sunday. They can also take hope from the fact that while Verstappen was unhappy with the car, and at times looked like he really had to hustle it around the lap with overheating rears a problem in some corners, he still managed the second-best time.
If they can find something overnight and in second practice tomorrow, there’s still a very good chance Red Bull can deliver on their favourite tag for this weekend, Verstappen having won here in 2019 and come within a whisker in 2018, too, after all.
But there was another twist in the story late on Friday night, as Verstappen was also summoned to appear before the stewards on Saturday, for breaking Parc Ferme rules - possibly when he was seen touching Hamilton's car after qualifying. SO he too may yet have a penalty to serve this weekend.
4. AlphaTauri love the high altitude
Confidence is everything in Formula 1 and Pierre Gasly has it in spades right now, the Frenchman making the top five in qualifying for the third time in four races.
AlphaTauri reckon he got the absolute maximum out of the car, which put the AT02 third in the pecking order of teams. His lap is all the more impressive given our data shows Ferrari have the slight edge in qualifying trim but were ultimately not able to do as good a job as the local rivals.
There’s still a long way to go of course, but that Honda-powered car seems to be operating beautifully at high altitude. Convert this form into points on Sunday and they will take one step closer to boss Franz Tost’s long-held goal of finishing fifth in the constructors’ championship.
5. Ferrari hold edge on McLaren in P3 fight
McLaren arrived in Brazil expecting Interlagos to suit them better than Mexico City but expecting that rivals Ferrari would likely still have the edge over them – and so it proved.
Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc finished sixth and seventh respectively, with our data showing they have just over a tenth of a second advantage over McLaren in qualifying trim.
Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo both made the top 10, putting them in the mix to make progress in the Sprint and Sunday’s race, though while Ricciardo admitted they needed to see how long run data gathering goes on Saturday morning, the likelihood would be that challenging the Scuderia on Sunday might be a step too far.