Max Verstappen came within one corner of clinching pole position for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, before clipping a barrier at the final turn.
But as the radio communications from the session showed, Red Bull’s approach to the session didn’t always align perfectly with what their driver wanted. While Verstappen agitated for his team to arrange a slipstream for him, race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase urged their driver to focus on the game plan.
They came within one corner of pulling it off.
Like many drivers, Verstappen was preoccupied by traffic during Q1. With all 20 cars attempting to set a time, and knowing Red Bull had no fear of elimination, most of his back-and-forth with Lambiase was inevitably focussed on avoiding other cars.
The threat posed by championship rival Lewis Hamilton was naturally a matter of interest to the team. He was late to set a competitive lap in the session, waiting over seven minutes before he put a time on the board.
By that point, Verstappen had gone to the top of the times and was watching to know whether the rapidly improving track conditions would mean he needed to go again to guarantee getting through.
|Lambiase||You’re currently P1 on a 28.6, P2 is Norris on a 29.1, Hamilton is yet to set a lap, he aborted his lap.|
|Lambiase||We’ll stay out. Like I say, we think that’s safe, but we will stay out.|
|Lambiase||Any changes to tools at this stage, Max for the next one?|
Verstappen was instructed by Lambiase to keep going with a double cool-down lap strategy in the mid-part of the session, before getting insight into where he was losing time to Valtteri Bottas after the Mercedes overtook him in the timings. The first sector, in particular turn one, was a key concern for the team during the session.
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|Lambiase||So Bottas P1, 28.0, in terms of the first sectors we are three tenths down to him, I think you know why. Middle sector is within half a tenth, third sector you are purple, half a tenth quicker. So just be aware now everybody behind you could be opening laps.|
Verstappen’s qualifying would eventually end with a wall tap at turn 27 in Q3 but he nearly ran into trouble at the same corner towards the end of Q1 when he encountered a large queue of cars. Drivers had been instructed not to slow between turns 23 and 25, but several backed off after there, including Bottas whose engine had developed a misfire. As a result Verstappen almost literally ran into traffic.
|Lambiase||Max there’s too many cars just back out, back out, there’d be too much risk, you don’t need to take it. Box this lap, box this lap mate.|
|Verstappen||Fucking hell, can I box? Holy shit.|
|Lambiase||Yeah, I did just tell you that, box this lap.|
After running double cool-down laps on the soft compound in Q1, Verstappen was told early in Q2 that he needed to “really focus on cooling the tyres”” on the medium compound. Otherwise, Lambiase was unwilling to give much away on the radio, avoiding answering questions from Verstappen while out on track.
Verstappen’s initial effort in Q2 was the first lap of the weekend below a 1’28. Per routine, Lambiase reminded him he was likely on the set of tyres he will start the race with. That proved correct, Verstappen’s time was easily good enough to put him in Q3.
|Lambiase||This could be your race start set, so look after it. Next car timed lap Giovinazzi, 3.5 – he’s at turn seven.|
|Verstappen||Are you are you sure the lap is good enough?|
|Lambiase||We’ll box this lap please, Max, box this lap.|
After final practice Hamilton was investigated for failing to slow for yellow flags. He was judged not to be at fault as the accidental signal had been shown for less than a second.
Red Bull, who had been given a grid penalty in Qatar after Verstappen failed to slow for a double waved yellow flag, were clearly taking no chances of a repeat.
|Lambiase||Yellows ahead, may be yellows, yellows, yellows.|
|Lambiase||And we’ll box this lap please, Max, box this lap.|
|Verstappen||Was there a yellow?|
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In the final part of qualifying, Verstappen’s focus was able to shift to outright pace and taking pole, rather than being preoccupied with avoiding traffic. With only 10 cars left on track, gaps became much easier to find. Verstappen worked on his problem with turn one, flagged in the first part of qualifying, where he was losing time to the Mercedes drivers.
|Verstappen||So some changes to be made for turn one.|
|Lambiase||That’s right, yeah. Remember, the lap is not all won at turn one, though mate, the lap isn’t won at turn one. You’re quick enough in the rest of the lap.|
|Lambiase||No threats behind in terms of push laps, track is clear ahead of you. Recharge off when you’re ready.|
In the last third of the session, Verstappen boxed for fresh tyres after a discussion with Lambiase over Perez giving him a tow, which his engineer declined to entertain.
|Lambiase||Recharge on please, Max, recharge on. So question: we can box this lap for a fresh set if you’d like a balance adjust or we stay out and do the plan.|
|Verstappen||I need a tow.|
|Lambiase||That wasn’t the question. If the balance is out and you think… well, put it this way, we can put a fresh set and adjust the balance or we can stay out.|
|Verstappen||Yeah, fresh set.|
|Lambiase||Okay, understood, keep up the pace then please, box this lap, keep up the pace on the way in. Push push. You’re currently P1, 27.6; Bottas, 27.9, Hamilton 28.0 Checo 28.1. Box this lap.|
The final adjustment, before his last out and flying lap, was talked through before Verstappen arrived at the Red Bull pit.
|Lambiase||Front wing adjustment, please, Max front wing adjustment.|
|Verstappen||One more click.|
|Lambiase||Understood, Max. Push on the way in. Keep pushing Max, now box.|
But Verstappen was convinced he needed external help to boost his straight-line speed. The message, while Red Bull mechanics were making adjustments to and cooling his car, went unacknowledged.
|Verstappen||If Checo’s lap isn’t happening, just try to give me a tow.|
Verstappen didn’t have a tow for his final lap, but was exceptionally quick all the same. He set a personal best through the opening sector, and reeled off purple middle sectors in the mid-part of the lap.
He was on course to beat Hamilton’s time by three-tenths of a second as he approached the final corner. A tidy run through the turn 27 was all he needed.
“I thought, last corner, there might be still a bit to gain,” Verstappen explained. “I knew, of course, Lewis was a tenth, tenth-and-a-half ahead but I approached it like I always do in qualifying.
“But somehow I just locked up. I have to see if I actually braked later or not. For my feeling, I didn’t.”
|Lambiase||All okay Max?|
“It’s just really disappointing because it was a really good lap up until then,” he admitted. I was really enjoying it.” Until the 27th turn it looked like being a lap for the history books.
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2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
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- Hamilton closes on another Schumacher record with first ‘hat-trick’ of 2021
- How Hamilton and Verstappen’s roughest scrap yet played out on the radio
- Brawn defends Masi following criticism of Saudi Arabian GP decisions
- F1 drivers want safety changes to Jeddah’s “Suzuka with walls” layout