MIAMI — The championship battle between Ferrari and Red Bull continues to swing back and forth. Charles Leclerc‘s performance on Saturday at the Miami Grand Prix means pole position has alternated between the two teams at each round this season, with Ferrari leading Red Bull 3-2 overall after five races.
But Saturday’s session in Miami could have gone either way. Max Verstappen, who ended up third on the grid just 0.005s behind Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz in second, looked like he was the favourite early in Q3 only for Leclerc to snatch the fastest time overall on his final attempt.
Verstappen may have improved on his last lap, but ultimately dropped out of contention when his car snapped out of shape in Turn 5. The reigning champion, who missed the vast majority of the second practice session on Friday due to a hydraulic issue, said his lack of preparation ahead of qualifying ultimately cost him his shot at pole.
“I only did four or five laps yesterday and you cannot afford that on a new track like this and a street circuit in general, because it’s very critical to just do laps and get in a rhythm,” Verstappen said.
“On a normal track it is quite easy to get into a rhythm. On a street circuit it’s a lot more difficult and we basically failed on that side. Of course, in general, we are experienced enough to catch up on a lot of it, but to really fight, especially against a strong team like that, you cannot afford it.
“We still got close, but I think we could have done a much better job today if we had a cleaner Friday.”
As for the mistake itself, Verstappen added: “A bit of a weird moment to lose the car but again it’s just not really knowing the limits, I guess, and just trying a bit more, and then it snapped suddenly in Turn 5.
“I tried to keep it on the road but it didn’t really work, so I aborted. I tried to stay out of the way of the cars behind me, but a bit odd, the way it snapped. But these things can happen.”
After two days of action, the Miami International Autodrome has proved to be a significant challenge in qualifying. The circuit combines a fast first sector, long straights and a much tighter second sector, meaning setup direction has not been obvious. On top of that, the track surface hasn’t offered the level of grip teams were expecting and has become especially slippery off the racing line.
“It’s tricky, very slippery,” Leclerc said. “[The car is] sliding all around a bit everywhere and it is very, very difficult to put everything together because as soon as you get out of line a little bit you lose a lot of grip and a lot of lap time.
“So the lap wasn’t perfect but good enough to be on P1, the car was amazing today and hopefully we can keep that pace for tomorrow.”
Sainz’s presence ahead of Verstappen on the grid is good news for Leclerc, although Sainz has no intention of playing a supporting role for his teammate.
Asked if his approach to battling with Leclerc would take into consideration the fact his teammate is leading the championship, Sainz said: “No, the consideration is that we are teammates and that we want to score a one-two for the team independent of who is ahead or behind.
“It is the same consideration that I took this year and last year because I feel like it is still early in the season — we are only in the fifth race and there are 19 left [including Sunday].
“But you always treat your teammate with a bit more respect, like it was last year but the will of winning is still there and if the chance of winning is there I will go, taking into account that it is my teammate of course.”
Sainz is also hoping to use his front row start to regain momentum in his own championship challenge, which took two big hits after he retired in the gravel at the past two races. Following a spin on Friday in practice, he said he needed Saturday’s solid showing to rebuild his confidence.
“It’s not easy, I’m not gonna lie,” Sainz said. “It was still a bit on the back of mind in the quali lap, which is not ideal to drive a quali lap. When you don’t understand the crashes, it’s the worst and yesterday was very tricky to understand exactly what happened.
“It takes some confidence out, which shows I’m still learning this car, I’m still discovering things, it’s still surprising me. I’m quick because today I was pretty quick out there so, that’s the most positive thing.” — Laurence Edmondson
What kind of race can we expect?
The quality of the racing at the circuit, which wraps around the outside of Hard Rock Stadium, has been a big talking point since the final configuration was settled upon.
The two days of track action so far have been hectic, with lots of driver errors and several mistakes leaving a car in the wall. The most costly was made by Esteban Ocon, who was unable to take part in qualifying after crashing out of the final practice on Saturday afternoon.
“It could be a bit of a Baku,” Sainz said on Saturday evening, referring to the Azerbaijan GP’s Baku street race and its tendency to either be incredibly dramatic or incredibly uneventful, with minimal middle ground. “Very, very tricky out there.”
Lewis Hamilton is also a fan, enjoying how the circuit is unique to a lot of the other courses F1 drivers race.
“I think it’s great, the track is awesome,” Hamilton said. “It’s a different characteristic. It’s not the same as every other one.
“There’s a couple of bumps that we could probably fix. We should probably get rid of the chicane. Otherwise, it’s great.”
The designers of the circuit wanted to create a “mistake generator” and drivers seem to agree that is going to be a punishing venue.
“I think if you go off line it’s going to be ciao ciao,” AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly said. “That new tarmac they put in the new corner… this feels a bit like ice skating when you go over it.
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I think you’re going to see overtaking but if you’re going off track it’s going to be slippery.” — Nate Saunders