Red Bull’s Tyre Challenge: An Analysis of Verstappen’s Qualifying Run at the Australian GP
Red Bull faces a challenging qualifying session at the Australian Grand Prix, with Max Verstappen navigating the track without any mechanical issues that affected his teammate.
The team’s advantage was reduced, likely due to a complex tire situation with a cool temperature and a resurfaced track from last year.
Red Bull once again secured pole position in the latest qualifying session. However, it was a challenging run for Max Verstappen, who had to navigate the track without any mechanical issues that affected his teammate Sergio Perez in Q1, causing him to exit the session early. The RB19 car did not handle as smoothly in Australia as it did in the previous races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Although Verstappen managed to achieve a 0.236-second lead over the second-fastest driver, George Russell, the benchmark for Red Bull’s performance remains Verstappen’s pace. It is highly likely that Verstappen could have secured a more comfortable pole position in Jeddah than Perez did if he had not experienced any mechanical failure.
Upon examining the circumstances of each of the three qualifying sessions, it is evident that Red Bull’s advantage was significantly reduced in this race. Despite the four DRS zones at Albert Park, which typically benefit the Red Bull, the team faced a considerable challenge.
This challenge can likely be attributed to the complex tire situation, given the cool temperature and the resurfaced track from last year. Proper planning of the run plan was crucial to overcome this challenge. According to Verstappen, “It was just very tough to get the tyres to work in Turn 1 and get that comfortable feeling into that corner.
Throughout the weekend, the issue with the new Tarmac made it challenging to find the right performance on a flying lap, even if the team had more time for practice sessions like FP1 and FP2.
The rain shower that occurred just before the start of Q1, with the track surface temperature at only 21C, posed a significant challenge for the drivers. Despite the temperature increasing to 24C by Q3, the heavy rain on Friday had wiped away much of the usual rubber buildup on the track, exacerbating the difficulty of warming up the front tyres.
The newly-resurfaced track’s smooth micro-surface limited the tyres’ mechanical grip, and the low track temperature and lack of rubber build-up limited their chemical grip.
As a result, the front tyres were subjected to low stress, leading to low grip levels and slow warm-up. Drivers had to ensure that the tyres were adequately heated to deliver the required grip for Turn 1 on their flying lap.
However, this was made challenging by the very tight final few corners leading up to the lap. If the drivers pushed too hard through these corners, they risked damaging the front tyres by overheating their tread surface before the core had warmed up enough to become pliable.
According to Simone Berra from Pirelli, the challenge during the race was to ensure that both axles were in the working window and up to temperature. To overcome this challenge, it was beneficial to have a preparation lap to ensure that the tyres had enough energy going into them to work correctly when they reached the optimal temperature.
Berra also explained that the C4 tyre is quite peaky, which means that it has a more inconsistent behavior throughout the lap. However, with the preparation lap, drivers could achieve a more consistent behavior throughout the lap by having less peak grip. While it was possible to do a fast lap on the first lap out of the pits, this required pushing hard and risking overheating the tyres, making it challenging to control the temperatures. Therefore, the net benefit over the lap was more difficult to achieve.
During Q3, there was a question of whether to follow the conventional fast-cool-fast sequence or a prep lap followed by a fast lap before returning to the pits for the next set of tyres. Red Bull initially opted for the first method, while Mercedes chose the second.
However, the Red Bull method had two potential hazards. Firstly, drivers risked damaging the front tyres by pushing too hard on the last few corners of the out-lap, or not pushing hard enough, resulting in the tyres not being up to temperature by Turn 1. There was no way of knowing whether the tyres were at the right temperature until the driver reached the turn on their first flyer. Secondly, the fast-cool-fast method required more fuel, which meant that the first flyer would carry a weight penalty, and the tyres would be past their best for the second flyer.
Opting for the build lap followed by a single push lap method provided drivers with a less compressed timeframe to fit in their second new tyre run and find a suitable gap in the traffic. However, this method resulted in drivers losing out on the tyre’s peak grip.
In Q3, Verstappen displayed full attack on his first run, which was evident from his understeer through the final two corners.
Despite it not being an ideal lap, he managed to complete it only 0.5 seconds slower than his Q2 time when he had done a build lap. After a cool lap, he attempted another run on the same set of tyres, and although it was an improvement, it was still slower than his Q2 time and wouldn’t have been good enough for pole position in hindsight.
As the clock ticked down, Verstappen made a pit stop and got a new set of tyres. He was determined to complete a single push lap for his first flyer, otherwise he risked running out of time.
This turned out to be the pole lap, 0.3 seconds faster than his Q2 time. However, it was not a typical, comfortable demonstration of Red Bull’s superiority.
Verstappen commented that with so many 90-degree corners, a tiny mistake could result in a significant loss of momentum. He found this track more complicated compared to others where drivers typically understand what needs to be done.
Random variables impact Red Bull’s performance in Australian Grand Prix qualifying, according to Mercedes team principal.
Mercedes opted for the lower maintenance tyre run method, which involved doing a build lap and a flyer twice, and this likely allowed them to exploit more of their car’s limited performance. Russell also acknowledged the significant role played by tyres during the weekend, and their pace on the final lap was surprisingly close, only 0.25 seconds off, despite being one second behind on other occasions.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff commented that the limitation in their performance was not due to the feeling of the car but rather the lack of downforce. Despite this, the team maximized their efforts during the qualifying session, and they are making improvements in their understanding of the car.
Wolff also noted that getting the tyres into the sweet spot was critical to making a significant improvement in performance at this track. However, this was a random variable that could not be entirely controlled. In his view, this was not a case of everyone catching up to Red Bull, but rather a unique set of circumstances that impacted the team’s performance.
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