Christian Horner feels Mercedes’ straight-line speed has reverted to “normal” in Qatar, despite Lewis Hamilton taking pole position with ease.
Red Bull are publicly questioning the legality of the Mercedes W12, which was lightning-fast last weekend at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix won by Hamilton.
But even though the seven-time World Champion was 0.455sec faster than provisionally second-placed Max Verstappen, his title rival, in Q3 for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix, Horner was not attributing that to the straight-line speed that has been concerning he and his team so much.
“Their straight-line speed has come down a bit,” the Red Bull team principal told Sky F1. “I think it looks very similar to our straight-line speed now, which is good to see.
“I think Lewis made all his time in Turns 6 and 7, particularly on that last lap – he had an amazing sector through that sequence of the two slower corners. From what we’ve seen on the straight-line speed, it looks normal. Just a very strong lap by Lewis.”
Horner had said earlier he was “really delighted” the FIA were conducting a “fact-finding mission” in Qatar by carrying out load tests on rear wings, which is the part of the Mercedes car that Red Bull have been querying.
He added after qualifying: “I think the load test is doing its job because the straight-line speed is under control. Suddenly we are line on line – we haven’t seen that for about four or five races.”
Starting P2 for tomorrow's duel in the desert ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/m9ezW5D1gN
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Although Verstappen holds a 14-point lead in the Drivers’ World Championship with three races remaining, Hamilton now has the momentum following his victory in Brazil and his Saturday performance in Qatar.
And regardless of whether the Dutchman is yet penalised for breaching yellow-flag rules when he sees the stewards before the race, along with Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz, he will not have his team-mate up front in the early stages at the Losail International Circuit because Sergio Perez failed to reach Q3.
“Lewis put an amazing lap in there at the end,” said Horner. “That last lap was very, very quick. We’ve got Max on the front row, it was a shame to lose Checo, disappointing not to have him in Q3.
“But starting on the front row ahead of Valtteri, we’ve an opportunity on the run down to Turn 1.
“I think the problem with the race is you won’t be able to follow that close, so it will be about who gets into Turn 1. Then to follow closely with the speed of these corners, it will be very difficult to get close enough to mount an overtake.
“Then it comes down to strategy, tyre deg, pit-stops, reliability, all of those factors. I think the first premium will be on the start and the run down to Turn 1.
“I think Max got every ounce out of the car today and hopefully we can have a better race car tomorrow. The first 400-500 metres will be crucial.”
Verstappen was criticised for his on-track defence against Hamilton in Brazil and although unpenalised, he had to survive a right to review request from Mercedes. But Horner insisted the 24-year-old will not change his approach.
“Max will go for it, that’s the one thing I can guarantee,” said Horner. “If he sees a gap he will go for it, which he’s been absolutely consistent his whole career with.
“I don’t think anything has changed. You’ll have a good grand prix tomorrow, certainly for the first 500 metres, and then it will be ‘how do the strategies play out?’”