Valtteri Bottas has been feeling the pressure of Lewis Hamilton’s excellence this season, and it showed in his expletive-laden radio message after his victory in the last race in Russia.
In many ways, though, it was the Finn’s pole position at the Eifel Grand Prix on Saturday that should have opened Bottas’ personal release valve.
His Russian win was somewhat fortuitous, in that Hamilton was taken out of the lead by the controversial time penalty he was given for two illegal practice starts before the race. After that, Bottas was left to stroke home in the fastest car ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Perhaps the win did boost his confidence, however. For at a chilly Nurburgring, Bottas beat Hamilton in a straight fight in qualifying for only the third time this season and for the first time in six races.
No wonder the six-time champion was after the session in one of those slightly grumpy moods he gets into when he comes off second best.
“Lewis doesn’t like to be in P2 or worse,” team boss Toto Wolff said. “Accepting to follow a car is not how he operates.”
Hamilton very nearly did not even make it on to the front row, for Verstappen was just 0.037 seconds behind Hamilton, whose gap to Bottas was an unusually large 0.256secs.
Verstappen, in fact, was closer to beating the Mercedes to pole position than at any race so far this year. The Dutchman looked competitive throughout the only day’s running so far at this race, and was actually fastest of all on the first runs in the final part of qualifying.
In the end, the Mercedes just had that bit too much for him, but the trend line of Red Bull’s performances is very clear. In the past three races, they have taken a big step towards Mercedes in absolute competitiveness.
Red Bull started the year with a difficult car, one that was as likely to spit its drivers into a spin as it was to set a quick lap time, and over the first half of the season its average qualifying deficit to Mercedes was a massive three-quarters of a second.
But steady work on adding downforce while smoothing out some of its nervousness is finally paying dividends. The car is becoming more benign at the same time as getting quicker.
“The car has been improved through the year,” Verstappen said on Saturday. “It was all about calming everything a bit down and connecting the rear with the front a bit more, and so far it seems to work.
“It ended up understeering for once! We know at the start of the year a few things were not right and we tried to learn and try to make it better and improve for next year, and not make the same mistakes.”
Verstappen, he made clear, does not like understeer – when the front of the car wants to go straight on at a corner – but he joked that it was “nice” to have some for once, because the car’s biggest problem so far this year has been its nervous rear.
Mercedes, it seems, is not developing this car quite as aggressively as it might be this year – perhaps partly because their advantage has been so big, but also with one eye on 2021.
“We tend to see this pattern that Red Bull catches up towards the end of the season and I guess it’s good for the championship,” Wolff said.
“We are following the strategy we believe is right, and balancing next year and this year and you can see it in the results on track. But we need to be vigilant and accept that the competition will increase over the last few races.”
It leaves Sunday’s grand prix poised intriguingly. After Friday’s running was cancelled because of poor weather, the teams are heading into the unknown. They have done no long runs on the tyres with heavy fuel loads, so will have to adapt as the race unfolds and they see how the tyres behave.
But, as a general rule, Mercedes believe that Red Bull close up on them from qualifying to race by about 0.3secs – and that is more than the margin between the two cars in qualifying for the first time this year.
It seems almost impossible in the context of a season that Mercedes have steamrollered, other than as a result of the combination of heat and soft tyres in the second Silverstone race. But could Verstappen be a real threat for the win, as he was for pole?
Leclerc’s star shining brightly
The standout performance of qualifying came from Charles Leclerc, who equalled Ferrari’s best grid position of the year with fourth place. Given his average for the season is eighth, that was some going.
It’s true that the Nurburgring plays into Ferrari’s hands more than some tracks, in that its ‘power sensitivity’ – the effect of engine power on lap time – is relatively low, and engine performance is Ferrari’s weakest point after the series of rule clarifications over the winter turned what last year was the strongest engine into the weakest in 2020.
Ferrari also have some aerodynamic upgrades on the car this weekend, although Leclerc and the team have been playing down their impact.
Sporting director Laurent Mekies said they were “small”, adding: “Nothing that can change drastically the order but hopefully they will take us in the right direction in terms of how to develop the car for next year.”
Leclerc’s performance was a reminder that this is a special talent, something that was all too evident last year but has been somewhat lost this season amid Ferrari’s struggles.
The 22-year-old is absolutely annihilating team-mate Sebastian Vettel in 2020. Leclerc is now nine-two up in their qualifying head-to-head and his average advantage over the four-time champion is 0.376secs, double what it was last year.
There are those who argue Vettel has lost his mojo, that he must have been affected by Ferrari’s decision to tell him he was surplus to requirements next year even before this season had started. And perhaps there is something in that.
But it is not as if Vettel has given up. Relations with team boss Mattia Binotto may not be brilliant after his decision, but Vettel is working with his engineers as closely as ever, and he is said by insiders to be a happy, not sullen, presence within.
He is a proud man, who cares very much about his performance and how it looks, and it will hurt him that Leclerc is proving so superior.
Vettel does not like the handling traits of this year’s car and has admitted he is struggling to get comfortable in it. And he pointed out that he also did not get the upgrades until qualifying, whereas Leclerc ran them in morning practice, where the two cars were split so the team could compare the data of different packages.
But none of that should detract from the quality of Leclerc’s driving this season.
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