Post the 2021 Imola Grand Prix qualifying session, Mercedes claimed they were expecting to be slower than their Red Bull Racing rivals. Debriefing after the qualifying session, Team Principal Toto Wolff, Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin, and drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas laid out the task ahead of them.
While Hamilton claimed pole position, his Bottas only managed to grab eighth on the grid for the race. The difference in the qualifying times of both drivers was 0.597 seconds, almost six-tenths of a second. While Bottas was baffled by the pace deficit to the top, Hamilton was surprised to claim pole position.
Speaking post qualifying, Hamilton said: “I definitely didn't expect us to be ahead of the two Red Bulls. I think they've been so quick this weekend. There were times when they were six tenths ahead."
An unrepresentative practice session by the Red Bull Racing team had left Mercedes quizzing their true pace, to which the Briton conceded by saying:
“We didn't really know where they would be.”
On how he edged his rivals, the Mercedes reigning champion said:
“This track is all medium and high speed corners, so I think that's why we've closed the gap. Temperatures are much lower which has brought us closer to the Red Bulls.”
Qualifying proved Red Bull Racing had an advantage with their one-lap pace. However, in the race, the run down to the first corner will be a test for Hamilton. Speaking about the task ahead, the Mercedes champion said:
“It's going to take absolutely perfect laps to stay ahead of them if we are going to have a chance of the win tomorrow.”
For the pole-sitter of the last Imola GP, qualifying was very similar to the free practice prior to the session. Bottas explained he was confused by the handling of the Mercedes W12, saying:
“On the first run of Q3 I had oversteer and then the second run, the rear end was not so good. Q3 first run, I went into turn two and had a really sudden snap from the rear end and I lost a lot of time. The same in run two, I couldn't trust the rear end. That isn't something I felt in Q1 or Q2 so it's difficult to understand - we will have to investigate.”
Mercedes engineer Andrew Shovlin explained Bottas' issue by saying:
“We've got a bit of analysis to do to understand Valtteri's issue. He was looking very strong in Q1 but set his best time on the third lap and couldn't repeat that time for the rest of the session.”
Mercedes surprised at pole but feel threatened about the race
According to Toto Wolff, the pole position was a surprise and their data suggested Verstappen had set himself up well for the pole, but for a driving error. Explaining why they lack in performance, he said:
“The loss compared to last year is just enormous - we were six tenths ahead and now we are two tenths behind.”
However, at Imola, Wolff suggested that the reason for their improved performance was their car being in a "better balance window." The advantage the Red Bull Racing team has over Mercedes is that their drivers will be starting on different tires, which means they will attempt two different strategies; something Wolff termed "a big advantage."
The Milton Keynes squad were not the only threat to Mercedes; McLaren’s Lando Norris had set a lap that qualified him for a provisional second place, only to have it deleted for exceeding track limits. During FP3, Norris had clocked a time that was over a tenth quicker than Hamilton, suggesting his car could have better balance through the corners than the Mercedes.
In the initial run of the final qualifying session (Q3), where Hamilton secured provisional pole position, he was only a tenth clear of Verstappen due to the Dutchman posting impressive second and third sector times.
Verstappen’s driving error cost him two places on the grid but that does not nullify his chances of being a significant threat in the race. Even if the Mercedes driver manages to get a clean start on Sunday afternoon, he risks getting undercut during the pitstops, making it Hamilton's race to lose.