Verstappen quickest as tricky conditions hit Qatar practice
By Ian Parkes
Saturday 7th October, 2023 - 1:37am
Max Verstappen unsurprisingly set the leading time in the opening practice session ahead of this weekend’s Qatar Grand Prix, albeit with the hour-long run causing a cacophony of problems.
For the latest sprint weekend, with FP1 the only test bed ahead of qualifying later today, Verstappen was comfortably fastest with a lap of one minute 27.428s around the Lusail International Circuit, finishing 0.334s ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz.
Those times came at the end of what proved to be a very tricky session for all concerned.
One of the problems for the drivers initially were the clouds of dust and sand being kicked up by the 20 cars as they took to the pit lane
Aside from being on the outskirts of the capital Doha, and therefore in a considerably deserted area, in the weeks building up to this event the paddock area was a construction site as a new pit and paddock complex has been built to bring the venue up to date.
At one stage early on, it prompted Sainz, referencing his father’s rallying exploits, to quip: “Yeah, my dad would do quick in these conditions.”
In addition, the drivers also had to acclimatise to a newly resurfaced circuit, with Verstappen commenting after a couple of laps “Oh my God! This is so slippery.”
Throughout the session, there were numerous off-track moments, not least caused by severe gusts of wind, two of which were from the two-time champion who can clinch a third consecutive title this weekend.
A setting sun, creating visibility issues, and searing temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius further added to the difficulties faced by those on track who only had an hour to get up to speed before facing qualifying under the lights and, therefore, significantly different conditions.
For instance, track temperature at the start of the session was 45.5 degrees Celsius, and by the close, with the sun almost set, was down to 38.
Appreciably, though, the opening laps from all concerned were gingerly bearing in mind the leading time in first practice from F1’s maiden visit two years ago was 1:23.273s from Verstappen.
It resulted in the lead changing hands on numerous occasions, with Verstappen, George Russell, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso all leading the way in the opening 20 minutes, but considerably off the pace on the hard compound tyres.
Russell was the first to dip below 90 seconds around a 16-turn track where a driver is on full throttle for 75 percent of the lap.
As the circuit conditions improved, so the lap times tumbled, with Charles Leclerc initially shaving seven-tenths of a second off Russell’s lap, although the Monégasque’s lead lasted just seconds, however, as Alonso soon set a 1:28.624s.
On his return to the pits there appeared to be a misfire on Leclerc’s Ferrari as he commented: “Oh, that didn’t sound good. What happened there?”, to which the team responded that they would get back to him. It is understood there was a software issue.
Of the leading drivers from one of the top-five teams, Sainz was the first to venture out on the medium compound, but still finished 0.442s behind Alonso’s time that held firm until, with just over 20 minutes remaining, Piastri set a 1:28.380s on the hard tyres, shaving 0.244s off the Spaniard’s pace.
McLaren team-mate Lando Norris, who had ploughed through a polystyrene speed board early on after going off track, came within 0.061s of Piastri to split the Australian and Alonso.
Five minutes later, Leclerc went quickest with a 1:28.104s, albeit on the medium Pirellis before Williams’ Alex Albon became the first to venture out on the soft rubber with 13 minutes remaining, only to venture off track at Turn 4, forcing him to abort the lap.
On his second push lap, Albon again lost his FW45 at the same corner, complaining that the “rear was not connected to the car at all “, that there was “zero accommodation”.
Showing Albon the way to go on the soft tyres, Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg then leaped up the leaderboard to sit 0.067s behind Leclerc.
On his first push lap on medium tyres, Alonso reclaimed top spot with a 1:27.919s, albeit momentarily as the soft-shod Verstappen went quicker by almost half a second with a time that proved to be the best of all.
Behind Sainz, Leclerc finished third overall, followed by Alonso with a fine time on the medium tyres. The two-time champion was the only one of the top seven on the yellow-banded rubber.
Sergio Perez was fifth ahead of AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Hulkenberg, with Russell eighth, then Piastri and Norris, neither of whom tested either the medium or soft tyres.
The Williams duo of Logan Sargeant and Albon were next up, both just over a second off the pace, followed by Hamilton.
On his maiden outing around the circuit, and ahead of what is expected to be his final race weekend before being replaced by Daniel Ricciardo for the next event in Austin, Liam Lawson could only manage 19th quickest in his AlphaTauri, with only Kevin Magnussen in his Haas slower, the Dane two seconds down on Verstappen, despite being on the soft tyres.