By Carol M. Creasey
The team had much work to do to improve their balance, as well as other issues. So the Press took it upon themselves to announce that Red Bull’s Max Verstappen would be most likely to win the championship. They seem to have entirely forgotten that his new team-mate Perez is no slouch, and once he gets used to the car, he can also be a force to be reckoned with.
During first practice, as was expected, Verstappen topped the time sheets with a time of 1m31.394s, with Valtteri Bottas second, another 3 tenths behind, and Sir Lewis fourth, at 6 tenths behind. Later in the day in the second practice, Verstappen was once again on top with a time of 1m30.847s, Lando Norris was next with a time of 1m30.942s, and this time Sir Lewis came third with a time of 1m31.082s, considerably closer and less than 3 tenths short. Bottas was fifth with a time of 1m31.218s.
When Mercedes encounter problems they work flat out to solve them, and already they have improved the stability and performance of the car. Whilst the fans are excitedly waiting for qualifying and the race, when all cars will be revealing their true performance, it looks like it will be a very exciting year, which is just what Sir Lewis craves.
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Sir Lewis elevated himself to second in free practice 3, but once again he was outpaced by Verstappen by seven tenths. By the time qualifying came around, the commentators were agog with excitement, as all indications were that Red Bull were about to topple the supremacy of Mercedes. It was noticeable that in Q2 Verstappen could not match the pace of Mercedes on medium tyres. Sir Lewis was fastest, and Bottas came next. The other drivers were running soft tyres at that point.
However in Q 3, it was Red Bull who clinched the pole. Sir Lewis said he gave it everything, but was three tenths adrift in second place, while Bottas was in third, and six tenths short. The other Red Bull driver Sergio Perez finished 11th, which meant he was not at the front to protect Verstappen, so Mercedes would hope that having their two drivers positioned together would be helpful while trying to topple the young Dutchman in the race. It was now abundantly clear that Mercedes is not the fastest car this year, and Red Bull is, which meant Mercedes were going to have to try and find other ways to beat them.
On race day, it was an unusual start with two formation laps because of a problem with Perez’s car, which meant he would start from the pit lane and the race would be one lap shorter. At the start Verstappen managed to hold off Sir Lewis, whereas Leclerc overtook Bottas for third place briefly, before Bottas regained his position.
Sir Lewis stayed within touch of Verstappen, and thanks to a brilliant strategy call from his team, benefited from undercutting him in the first pit stop. Then the two of them traded first place from each other through more pit stops, until Verstappen made his final stop. With fresher tyres, he went chasing after Sir Lewis, who was trying to eke out performance out of his hard tyres until the end of the race.
On lap 53 Verstappen made his move around the outside of Sir Lewis to overtake, but in doing so he had all four of his wheels off the track, which prompted Red Bull to tell him to give the place back. Verstappen wasn’t happy to do it, but instructions had come from race control. He had to comply or face a penalty for gaining an illegal advantage, and this gave Sir Lewis a small margin, which meant he could fight off the challenge and win the race. It was thrilling to watch, as he really had to fight hard to keep Verstappen behind him. This was Red Bull’s race to lose, as they clearly had the fastest car, and so the victory must be even sweeter for Sir Lewis and the team. Verstappen had to settle for second, and Valtteri Bottas completed the podium in third place. He was unlucky to have an extra-long pit stop, which held him further back, but he did manage to get the extra point for fastest lap.
This is probably the closest and most exciting race we have seen for a while, which means we are in for a nail-biting season, during which I am sure the cream will rise to the top.
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