Ferrari arrived in Northamptonshire bracing for “two difficult weekends” at Silverstone’s high-speed circuit, with many tipping the Scuderia to hit a new low in what has already been a troubled start to the delayed 2020 F1 season.
A resounding lack of performance with its SF1000 car has left Ferrari fifth in the constructors’ standings after a difficult opening three rounds.
Its early season struggles prompted Ferrari to take a “radical approach” with a low-downforce set-up for this weekend’s British Grand Prix in the hope it would improve its fortunes over one lap.
There were encouraging early signs throughout practice as Leclerc finished P5, P4 and P6 across the three sessions, before he secured Ferrari’s best qualifying performance of the year on Saturday afternoon.
A brilliant effort in Q3 saw Leclerc seal fourth place on the grid for Sunday’s British Grand Prix as he got within a tenth of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
What’s more, Leclerc was successfully able to progress from Q2 on a set of Medium tyres, potentially handing him a strategic advantage in the race.
Leclerc’s remarkable job was further emphasised by the fact teammate Sebastian Vettel was nearly a second further back in P10 as the German failed to replicate a similar level of performance and was unable to make it through to Q3 on the Medium compound.
“I’m extremely happy about today,” said Leclerc after qualifying. “I did not expect to be fourth for tomorrow’s race and especially not starting with mediums.”
The positive signs for Ferrari may be short-lived come race day, however, after Leclerc admitted the team was “struggling massively” on long runs as a direct consequence of its downforce level approach.
Although the team expects to be less competitive in the race, Leclerc believes starting on the Medium tyre will prove a “massive” help.
“We tried it but we were not very confident about making it [through to Q3],” Leclerc explained. “To make it work was very nice.
“It’s looking [better] for the race tomorrow because our race pace we are struggling. I think we have the pace, we are just destroying the tyres very quickly compared to the others, so starting on the medium will help us massively.”
Untouchable Mercedes in a league of their own
The two all-black Mercedes cars were always expected to prove the benchmark at Silverstone and in qualifying they were simply untouchable.
Hamilton charged to his seventh British Grand Prix pole to beat his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who ensured Mercedes completed a record 66th front-row lockout.
Hamilton had trailed Bottas throughout the opening segments of qualifying and recovered from a red-flag causing spin in Q2 to eventually outpace the Finn when it mattered most by a comfortable margin of three-tenths.
The Briton ended qualifying 1.022 seconds quicker than the nearest non-Mercedes driver, Verstappen, who admitted the huge gap came at no surprise.
While Red Bull and Ferrari fell back in relative performance compared to the 2019 British Grand Prix, Mercedes enjoyed an average gain of 0.886s in lap time as Hamilton blitzed a new track record.
Hamilton was quick to praise his team after it claimed its seventh straight pole for the British Grand Prix, a run which stretches back to the start of the V6 hybrid era in 2014.
“It’s pretty incredible, the performance here,” Hamilton explained.
“This track is really one of the best tracks in the world, especially when the wind is right like today, and the temperatures are just right.
“This team is remarkable. I’m incredibly grateful to this team who continue to do a great job back at the factory, and also here during the weekends.Bit by bit we continue to step forwards.
“We’re still powering ahead, we’re not resting on the performance that we have, we’re trying to push the boundaries and the limits. That’s the most impressive thing about this team.”
Mercedes’ dominant performance once again underlined the scale of the task that every other team on the grid faces to prevent a runaway campaign of victories for the German manufacturer, which is eyeing an unprecedented seventh world championship double this year.
Who else impressed?
The performance of the Racing Point team was one of biggest disappointments of qualifying after the Silverstone-based outfit failed to build on its early promise shown in practice.
“I’m very happy,” Norris said. “It was a bit of a scrappy qualifying, went off on my first push lap of Q1. In Q3, I managed to put it together and put in, I don’t know if it was my best lap ever, but it was one of my best laps.”
The Enstone squad has been pleased by its progress after bringing some new upgrades to Silverstone and is targeting its first double points score of the season on Sunday.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly was unfortunate not to make it through to Q3 after setting an identical lap time to Stroll. The Frenchman has been in good form at Silverstone on a weekend when Alex Albon once again struggled and was ultimately knocked out in Q2.
George Russell continued to excel on a Saturday as he bagged a third Q2 appearance on the bounce for Williams with the 15th-fastest time, though the Briton’s efforts were undone by a five-place grid penalty for failing to slow for yellow caution flags in Q1.