Feature F1 Unlocked
FRIDAY DEBRIEF: How it's shaping up after qualifying in the US with Leclerc claiming a surprise pole
The Circuit of The Americas delivered another belter of a qualifying session as Ferrari emerged as the surprise frontrunner with Charles Leclerc taking pole.
But does he have the pace to convert it into a win come Sunday and how are things looking ahead of Saturday’s Sprint Shootout and Sprint?
Leclerc springs a surprise as Ferrari shine
Charles Leclerc was given a fright by his engineer when he heard the words “track limits” shortly after his final timed lap. “I punched the steering wheel and my helmet and then I heard ‘for Verstappen!’ and then I was, OK, that’s better news for us.”
It was a sparkling lap from the Monegasque, who made the most of the Scuderia’s low drag set-up that has yielded a sizeable advantage on the straights at COTA and edge in the slow-speed corners to secure his third pole position of the season.
Ferrari’s one-lap pace was very impressive – though it should be noted this has been their strength all season. When it comes to race pace, based on the limited data gathered in the day’s only practice session, Ferrari are down in fourth.
They are struggling in the high-speed corners, which will leave them exposed and under pressure in the first sector, but track position is key around Austin and the car seems to be handling very well, so it would be fair to say the Prancing Horse are contenders for the win on Sunday.
Track limits catches out champion Verstappen
The championship may be done and dusted, but Max Verstappen has no intention of easing off, the Red Bull driver laser-focused on winning all the remaining five Grands Prix of the season.
He’ll have to do it the hard way, though, after a rare mistake – where he drifted off the track at Turn 19 to trigger a deleted lap that had initially been pencilled in for pole – means he’ll start down in sixth.
The Dutchman has won from lower before on plenty of occasions, so he’ll likely be unfazed by the lower than usual grid slot. He’ll also be buoyed by Red Bull’s immense ultimate pace around COTA.
Our data suggests the RB19 is 0.27s quicker than anyone else in terms of race pace – and the best of all by some margin in the high-speed turns. That means he’ll be a menace through Sector One and still very much in the mix to fight for the win.
McLaren continue mighty fine form
McLaren are the form team, the papaya operation having scored more points in the last three Grands Prix than any other outfit on the grid, including reigning world champions Red Bull.
But Lando Norris was a little shocked to find himself just over a tenth of a second off pole position and in with a strong chance of a first Grand Prix victory.
The Briton was pretty hard on himself for mistakes in both qualifying and the Sprint Shootout in Qatar, but he was much cleaner in Austin – and the result was a third front row of the season.
McLaren’s race pace is bettered only by Red Bull, with the team around a tenth of a second quicker than Ferrari and a fraction ahead of Mercedes. They also have a decent advantage on the straights over everyone other than Ferrari – which will be helpful in defending come race time.
Mercedes in the hunt for Texan spoils
Mercedes haven’t had many positive Fridays in 2023, but this was certainly one of them, with Lewis Hamilton within a couple of tenths of pole position.
The Silver Arrows features an upgraded floor, which the team said delivered the performance they had been expecting – with both drivers reporting they feel a benefit.
Their trackside chief Andrew Shovlin said the long runs of both Hamilton and team mate George Russell “looked good” in FP1 so the team is “optimistic” they can race well.
Our data shows they were ultimately the quickest of all over one lap, though, had every driver delivered their ideal lap, it would have been Verstappen edging out Hamilton for pole.
Strategy will be key heading into the weekend
Teams are restricted to the number of tyres they can use over the course of the weekend – and as a result, tyre allocation is going to be extremely tight.
Some teams will use the soft in the Sprint – and risk running out of performance towards the end of the stint – because they want to save the medium for the Grand Prix, where the bigger points are on offer.
That’s because the medium and the hard are likely to be the race tyre, as degradation is higher than expected amid very warm temperatures in Austin.
We’re expecting a two-stop strategy on Sunday, with the rear tyre management on the soft essentially ruling it out as an option for a Grand Prix race tyre.
Lots, then, for the engineers to ponder on before Saturday.