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The climax of Formula 1 qualifying was one of the most anticipated moments of the Italian Grand Prix weekend, but two comedic minutes plunged the session’s finale into embarrassment.
Drivers acting as “roadblocks” in a desperate bid to ensure they did not miss out on the all-important slipstream at Monza sparked the silly sight of all nine cars proceeding excruciatingly slowly after exiting the pitlane.
When eight of those nine runners crossed the line to be greeted by the chequered flag instead of starting their final flying laps, the farcical scene was complete.
Nico Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz Jr and Lance Stroll were all reprimanded for their roles, but the events of those ridiculous two minutes suggest others also need to take responsibility.
A red-faced end to a qualifying session is not on the same level as F1’s damaging six-car race at the 2005 United States GP, when most of the grid withdrew at the end of the formation lap amid safety concerns.
But it was labelled an unprecedented “absurdity” by Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff and “a shambles” by Red Bull driver Alex Albon.
Here’s how it happened.
The waiting game
When Kimi Raikkonen crashed at the end of his first flying lap in Q3 and caused a red flag, some drivers were yet to set a lap time.
The value of the aerodynamic tow is so huge at Monza – more than half a second, if perfected – that even those who had a banker lap in had no intention of hitting the track until the very last minute because running behind another car down the long straights is so much more attractive than running solo.
“We knew that 2m30s would’ve been an optimum starting time,” said Mercedes team principal Wolff.
“And we knew that 2m10s or 2m15s is probably the last you can leave in order to make it properly back with a normal out-lap.”
But only with two minutes on the clock did cars trundle towards the pitlane exit, headed by Hulkenberg, Stroll and Sainz.
That provided a slim margin of just 10-15 seconds with a normal out-lap of around 1m45s.
“But if you have a few roadblockers in the front,” said Wolff, “the whole thing becomes a bit difficult.”
Hulkenberg’s ‘long cut’ fails
As the leader of the pack Hulkenberg emerged from the pitlane, he was told over the radio to “remember the plan” and warned he had Stroll right behind him.
Hulkenberg made a minor movement to the right, feigning to take the first chicane as normal, before switching left and diving onto the run-off.
He proceeded through the bollard chicane at a very slow space but still rejoined ahead, as Stroll backed right off and fell behind Sainz.
As Hulkenberg toured through Curva Grande on the left-hand side he was warned only one minute remained and that some cars may not finish their outlap in time.
He was urged to push on just as Sainz blasted past, then accelerated as Sebastian Vettel went past as well – but had to jump on the brakes and swerve right, almost into the path of Charles Leclerc, because Sainz suddenly slowed.
That movement also forces an irate Lewis Hamilton onto the grass in avoidance, as the Mercedes man desperately tried to clear the queue ahead.
By the time the queue reached the second chicane, Vettel had moved to the head of the train with Hulkenberg back to fourth, behind Sainz and Leclerc.
Sainz passed Vettel through the second Lesmo, and by the time the lead quartet reached Ascari Hulkenberg was told “we are right on the limit, there is no timing for slowing down at all”.
Though Hulkenberg – still fourth in the queue – seemed to have the opportunity to make it to the line in time, he and the Ferraris still conspired to miss out.
How the Ferraris got it so wrong
Vettel emerged from the pitlane behind Leclerc, as on this occasion the four-time world champion should have received a tow from his team-mate.
But Albon split the two Ferraris by coming out of his garage.
Vettel went past Albon before the first chicane, and then overtook Leclerc as part of a chain reaction to events ahead.
As Sainz hesitantly went past Stroll out of the chicane, blocking the track, Valtteri Bottas lifted off.
Leclerc lifted as well in response, but Vettel moved left and went past them both.
Hulkenberg and Sainz then drove side-by-side through Curva Grande slowly, with Vettel annoyed by their speed but also keen for Leclerc to repass him.
The Ferraris were briefly first and second in the queue, which could have given them the opportunity to control it at the front – albeit sacrificing a tow for Leclerc.
But Sainz split the two cars again by passing Leclerc on the left into the second chicane.
Leclerc waited behind his team-mate even so and only passed Vettel when he was slow out of Ascari.
They had left it too late, though, and Leclerc just missed starting his lap in time despite thinking he made it.
Obviously, this meant the drivers behind were condemned already – although the hold-ups still continued as Vettel backed off into Parabolica, holding up Hulkenberg and Hamilton.
Predictable and avoidable
Most teams and drivers expected “games” to be played in pursuit of the tow this weekend, which made Saturday’s events largely predictable.
The Italian GP stewards have since urged the FIA to “expedite” a solution to avoid a repeat of the queuing drama.
Robert Kubica and Romain Grosjean have advocated one-at-a-time qualifying at Monza, to avoid such scenes.
Alternatively, closing the pitlane exit at a certain point would force teams to send their cars out without a risky time margin, and a minimum out-lap time would also prevent ludicrously slow speeds.
Such solutions carry their own risks, and arguably it is not the job of F1 or the FIA to force competitors not to run their time low.
The teams and drivers made that call themselves and that is where the real responsibility of Saturday’s farce lies.
Originally posted on this site Autosport
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