Max Verstappen in a Red Bull with a new bargeboard arrangement designed as part of a package with the new diffuser introduced last week, was comfortably the fastest all weekend. So confident has the team become with its raw pace that it is now beginning to run Fridays with a more conservative Honda power unit setting – taking the big picture perspective of a team chasing the world championship when reliability could yet decide things. But this victory puts Verstappen more than a race retirement ahead of Hamilton.
On the other hand, Mercedes with nothing different and a set-up experiment that didn’t really bring anything was left further behind than a week ago. And popping up between the Red Bull and Mercedes in qualifying was an improved McLaren driven to brilliant effect by Lando Norris around a track at which its huge DRS effect is seen to maximum advantage.
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It was enough to put Norris on the podium once Lewis Hamilton had taken kerb-induced bodywork damage just before the first stops that not only lost him a place to Norris but obliged him to surrender position to team-mate Bottas, who was able to take advantage of a 5s penalty for Norris to jump up to second at the pitstops. A very subdued fourth was all that Hamilton could muster from the weekend.
When might Red Bull look at switching off the development programme now that it’s ahead and pulling away? “Around Abu Dhabi,” said Christian Horner, only half-jokingly.
His advantage over the lap was bigger and after securing pole despite a less than ideal tyre prep lap, he was up and gone pretty much as soon as the lights went out.
The Mercedes found less time from the C5 softs in Q3 than most other cars and neither Hamilton nor the team felt that the Norris qualifying time was achievable by them, even if the Mercedes was still decisively quicker over a stint on the medium and hard tyres that everyone favoured for Sunday. Even Perez was able to shade Hamilton and Bottas to line up third.