MONZA, Italy — You don’t see that every day. Charles Leclerc’s second pole position in two weeks was just what the tifosi wanted to see ahead of the Italian Grand Prix … but they probably didn’t pay to see Q3 unfold the way it did.
So … what was that all about?
It’s rare you see Formula One cars trying to go slower than one another, but that’s exactly what happened on the final outlap in qualifying at Monza. The result was somewhat farcical as seven of the nine remaining drivers in Q3 (Kimi Raikkonen had already crashed out) failed to start their lap before the session clock reached zero. As a result, they all missed out on an attempt to set a time at the end of the session when track conditions were at their best, while Alex Albon and Lance Stroll missed out on setting a lap time altogether.
The reason for the manoeuvring was simple: the power of the slipstream at Monza. One of the key factors determining a car’s terminal velocity is wind resistance (also known as drag) and the less you have the faster you go. The most effective ways to reduce drag without changing the car itself is to follow another car and allow it to punch a hole in the air for you.
Much like a peloton in cycling, being at the back of the pack makes it easier to go faster than pushing on at the front. And at a track like Monza, where the cars have wings trimmed down as far as the teams dare, the advantage of a good slipstream can be as much as 0.5s per lap.
No wonder then, that no one wanted to be the driver at the front of the pack, making life easier for the cars behind, while getting none of the benefits themselves.
“You don’t want to be at the front at all,” Red Bull’s Alexander Albon explained afterwards. “It was just one of those things, we talked about it in briefing and we knew it was going to happen. But to be honest I don’t think anyone expected it to be that bad.”
What happened in Monza is nothing new. A similar thing happened at a number of races this year, and in Shanghai a handful of drivers also missed out on their final lap after jostling for position on the outlap. The teams are fully aware of the benefit to be found from getting a tow, and as a result play chicken with one another to make sure they are not the one leaving the pits first.
In Baku, where a good tow effectively secured Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas the front row over Sebastian Vettel, new tactics evolved as Mercedes sent its cars out of the garage first but ordered them to make a practice start at the end of the pit lane so that they would drop back into the middle of the pack.
The same thing happened on the first run in Q3 in Monza and, again, it was Vettel who decided not to get caught up in the brinkmanship and ended up breaking clear at the front of the queue to get a clean, non-slipstream lap by himself. The lap itself was good, but in a demonstration of how valuable a tow is at Monza, he finished 0.150s slower than teammate Leclerc, who did get a tow.
What happens next?
The situation that played out at the end of Q3 was entirely predictable — so much so that the FIA had warned teams ahead of the session that it would clamp down on anyone going too slowly on outlaps. FIA Race Director Michael Masi sent a note to teams warning them that any driver caught going slower than the Safety Car delta speed (i.e. the speed cars slow down to if a Safety Car is called in a race) could face an investigation from the stewards.
Whether the cars were in breach of that is hard to tell without the data and an explanation of what was happening on track, but after the anticlimax of seven drivers missing their final run in Q3, a message popped up on the timing screens that the final outlap was under investigation by the stewards. A similar scenario in Friday’s F3 qualifying led to the session being red flagged and 16 of the 30 drivers getting penalties for driving unnecessarily slowly.
Nico Hulkenberg was cleared of deliberately skipping the first chicane but was soon under another investigation, this time along with Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz, for driving slowly on the final outlap. Hulkenberg and Sainz were both at the front of the queue as the drivers started the lap and that resulted in all nine cars bottling up in the Curva Grande.
“I definitely think that situations like what happened after the second corner shouldn’t happen — there were two cars side-by-side going at 20 kmh and we couldn’t pass them,” Leclerc said. “I think most of the drivers behind wanted to pass but didn’t have the opportunity. These situations have made a big mess towards the end and that’s why some cars didn’t make it to start their laps.”
Eventually the pit walls started to radio the drivers to tell them to speed up or risk missing the start of their lap, but by that point it was already too late for everyone but Sainz and Leclerc.
Late on Saturday evening it was confirmed Hulkenberg, Sainz and Stroll had escaped with a reprimand.
The stewards felt each driver “played a significant role in the banking up of cars at a critical stage of the final out lap for Q3” and that each had admitted to driving unnecessary slowly, while pointing out that everyone in the cluster of cars had done the same thing.
Interestingly, the verdict also included the following line: “The Stewards strongly recommend that the FIA expedite a solution to this type of situation.”
Vettel gets ‘benefit of the doubt’
That trio weren’t the only ones to visit the stewards’ room. Sebastian Vettel’s qualifying result was in doubt after the session when he came under investigation for apparently leaving the track and gaining an advantage at the Parabolica during Q2, on one of his timed laps.
Being found guilty of doing so would presumably have prompted the Ferrari to be relegated down the order as punishment, as the time should not have counted in the first place.
After the sun had set over the Monza circuit, the verdict came in: “The Stewards reviewed video evidence, heard from the driver of car 5 (Sebastian Vettel) and the team representative. The Stewards reviewed multiple camera angles, some of which appeared to show that the tyres were not in contact with the white line of the track edge, however views from other angles appeared to show that part of the front “wheel” (when viewed from above) may have been within the bounds of the white line.
“This cast an element of doubt which is considered significant enough to give the “benefit of doubt” to the driver in question. Competitors are reminded that they have the right to appeal certain decisions of the Stewards, in accordance with Article 15 of the FIA International Sporting Code and Article 9.1.1 of the FIA Judicial and Disciplinary Rules, within the applicable time limits.”
It would have been a brave set of stewards to have penalised a Ferrari car on a 50/50 at Monza.
Vettel had plenty to mull over without a penalty. The four-time world champion would not have expected to have settled for fourth on the grid but that’s where he will line up tomorrow — he felt some of that was down to Leclerc and Ferrari not properly executing pre-agreed tactics during Q3.
At the start of the top-10 shootout Vettel gave his young teammate the very tow everyone would be obsessed with finding at the end of the session. As already explained, there was lots of time to be gained from such a tactic. Vettel expected to have the same courtesy repaid to him at the end of Q3.
Only there was a slight problem. The messy scenario outlined above meant Vettel was one of the cars which failed to make it over the line in time. Leclerc did make it across in time, but the tardy outlap meant Vettel would not have the chance to improve with the benefit of the slipstream.
The German had been unhappy with his teammate’s positioning on that outlap — Leclerc only moved ahead of Vettel (as he was supposed to for the slipstream) on the run out of the final corner, Parabolica, as it became clear time was ticking away.
“I thought we had spoken about it,” Vettel said. “I definitely listened to what we intended to do. I think it was clear what will happen in the last bit of qualifying, I think we were foreseeing exactly what happened, but we weren’t doing what we were supposed to do and that’s why it was a mess. And I didn’t get a run in the end.”
Asked if he felt Leclerc was playing games, Vettel said: “Not from my side. I was the one trying to indicate, ‘Get out of the way’ because it was clear that I should be the one second in the second run getting a tow, because I was the first one in the first run.
“People were slowing down, Charles was slowing down, and in the end I didn’t get across the line, nor did I have a good tow. So not a good outcome.”