Verstappen’s qualifying can create false F1 ‘illusions’

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In 2023, races were firmly the dominion of Max Verstappen, as he took a record 19 wins from 22 races in the single-most dominant season any Formula 1 driver has ever recorded.

He also grabbed 575 points, led 1,003 laps and set a whole host of records, but in one area, he did not break the season-record.

That was for number of pole positions in a season, the mark which currently stands at Sebastian Vettel’s 15 in 2011, as Verstappen ‘only’ recorded 12.

Whilst there were only three race winners, there were five different pole-sitters, with Charles Leclerc emerging as the closest challenger to Verstappen in the final rounds – indeed, since the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, the two have qualified one-two at every race.

But whilst Verstappen would be ‘pegged’ back in qualifying and Leclerc would often out-perform his car, the Monegasque was often under no illusions about what would happen come the race.

Even if qualifying was tight, the superior race package of the RB19 meant the Dutchman would simply cruise off at the front, leaving the rest to fight over the crumbs.

But what are the reasons behind this apparent ‘disconnect’ between qualifying and race performance? RacingNews365 takes a look, as the Dutchman has started 2024 with two relatively simple wins from pole position, with pole margins of 0.228s and 0.319s respectively.

What goes on in races?

Firstly, in qualifying, drivers usually bolt on a set of fresh, soft tyres for the crucial Q3 runs and it is needed for just a single, banzai lap.

With the stickiest tyres and next-to-no fuel onboard, drivers can explore the limits of the car a little more – as Leclerc often does and occasionally, as was evidenced in Miami, go a little too far and crash out.

But it works for the Ferrari driver, as he has 23 pole positions to his name. That is good enough for 14th on the all-time pole list, ahead of Fernando Alonso in 260 fewer attempts with Verstappen currently sitting on 34.

However, the ability to fire up your tyres immediately in qualifying can also be a double-edged sword come the race – just ask Haas.

In 2023, the team discovered that its car had a ferocious appetite for Pirelli rubber and it was hamstrung in the races as the tyres overheated and degradation went through the roof.

Immediately getting the tyres working is a great advantage to have in qualifying, which is why the team was able to pull out some strong qualifying positions, including a second on the road for Nico Hulkenberg in Canada and fourth for Kevin Magnussen in Miami, but the team found itself scrapping over the odd point on a good weekend.

The harder you push to try and catch up to the leader, the worse the tyre wear gets, it is a vicious circle.

As for Verstappen – his ability to eke out lap-time without over-stressing the tyres is remarkable and often keeps enough life in the tyres whilst others wear theirs out in their vain pursuits.

His consistency in producing lap-times can verge on the metronomic, with very little drop-off over a stint compared to others losing tenths over a race run.

Time to up the game

Just one question does remain – how much is Verstappen keeping in the tank?

He knows that his package is far superior to anything else on the grid and so can drive within himself during races, not over-stretching the tyres and keeping the laps ticking down.

There is simply no need for him to go for broke, and this puts the onus on Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin to up their games and take a challenge to the all-conquering Red Bull driver.

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