Qualifying for the 2021 Imola GP saw Lewis Hamilton secure the 99th pole position of his career. He will be challenged by Red Bull Racing drivers Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen on Sunday, who qualified second and third respectively.
At the end of Q3, the top eight drivers were separated by a narrow margin, all within half a second of the pole sitter's pace. Having unmasked the true potential of the Red Bull RB16B, Perez and Verstappen pose a serious threat to the reigning world champion.
As suggested in Sportskeeda's Imola GP practice analysis, the circuit punishes the slightest of mistakes, and stringing a clean lap around the tricky layout can be challenging. Last year’s pole sitter Valtteri Bottas proved that after struggling and qualifying eighth, far from his pole-sitting teammate Hamilton.
Hamilton claimed pole in qualifying but it is advantage Red Bull in the race
Right off the bat, in Q1, Yuki Tsunoda suffered a shunt which proved how costly a mistake at Imola could be. Getting behind on his steering at the exit of Variante Alta, the Japanese rookie was unable to avoid a massive tankslapper that fired his AlphaTauri backwards into the barriers.
While the team's factory is only 10 miles away from the track, his mechanics have a massive rebuild on their hands. The incident brought out the red flag, giving drivers little room to improvise their laps in a shortened qualifying session.
Q1 saw both Mercedes drivers lead 1-2, with Bottas being the quicker of the two. McLaren’s Lando Norris, at that point, had slotted into third place, two tenths slower than Hamilton, and a tenth faster than Verstappen, who was fourth.
Norris was quickest in the first sector (23.683 seconds) and Bottas in the second and third (25.747 and 25.008 seconds respectively). Of the two Mercedes, Bottas was the only driver to string together a neat lap.
Both Alfa Romeo and Haas cars were eliminated in Q1, and Tsunoda remained the only driver to not set a time. Since all drivers used the soft compound (C4) tire, the margins were narrow.
The medium compounds shuffled the top half of the grid, with Perez clocking the fastest lap (1 minute 14.716 seconds), Norris slotting in second, followed by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
In Q2, Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas qualified fifth, sixth and seventh on the mediums, proving how difficult it can be to get a quick lap on the compound in cold weather, with it needing an extra lap to reach the optimal temperature window.
Norris had blitzed the first sector, clocking it in 23.671 seconds, an uptick of his performance in Q1. Verstappen and Bottas were quickest in the second (25.657 seconds) and third (25.008 seconds) sectors respectively.
Q2 also witnessed the shocking elimination of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who was outpaced by teammate Leclerc by four tenths of a second, and knocked out by a narrow margin of less than a tenth. With a grid bunched up so tight in terms of one-lap pace, a gap of four tenths was enough to leave room for another seven cars to split the two Ferraris.
Similarly, Aston Martin's drivers Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel were two tenths of a second apart from each other. However, there were two cars splitting the two, eventually eliminating Vettel out of the top 10.
Alpine F1 Team drivers Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso were split by three tenths of a second, leaving room for five cars to split the two, eventually eliminating the Spaniard out of the session. Ocon appeared to be struggling less in his second year with the French outfit compared to Alonso.
Hamilton will start his race on the medium compound while Perez and Verstappen will be on the soft and medium. The split strategy of the Red Bulls could hand the advantage to Perez, should he get a better launch into the first corner and pose a challenge to the Mercedes ace.
Hamilton’s wingman Bottas will start the race seven places behind him, due to an error in the second sector which compromised his momentum in the third. With the top nine drivers separated by a half-second, that mistake cost the Finn several places on the grid. Even if he manages to gain balance in the improved Mercedes W12 during the race, his track positioning within the opening laps will play a vital role in how his Sunday shapes up.
According to Brembo, brake temperatures are not much of an issue at Imola as the braking difficulty is medium. However, the weather forecasted for the race is a maximum of 13 degrees cooler than the previous two days, which means drivers starting the race on the soft compound tires might have a bigger advantage, until they are undercut in the pit strategies.
In theory, the optimum strategy will be a one-stopper in dry weather, due to the pit-lane time loss being high. In cooler weather, the tire wear and degradation will be lower, making an extended stint on the soft compound by some drivers a possibility. However, the only factor that could subvert these strategies is the rain forecasted for the race.
According to the current weather forecast, rain is forecasted before the race. The race could start on a damp surface, but if it rains during the race, that would mean a switch to the wet tires and more than a one-stop strategy for most. Rain during the race would stand to further level the grid in terms of tire performance and pace.
The only other hypothetical apart from rain that could lead to multiple pitstop strategies are opening lap incidents and subsequent Safety Car interventions. According to the long run data from Friday, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari will be stronger on the medium tire in race trim. Therefore, the Mercedes drivers could be expected to be at a disadvantage, with Hamilton in particular having his work cut out for him in the opening laps.