Did Red Bull gift-wrap pole position for Lance Stroll?

Lance Stroll took the first pole position of his career during qualifying for the Turkish Grand Prix, but for the majority of the wet session it looked like Max Verstappen had the top spot wrapped up. Here's what went wrong for the Dutchman...

Red Bull's blunder

Max Verstappen finished the second session of qualifying 1.9s clear of the rest of the field. Mercedes was nowhere, his teammate Alex Albon was his closest competitor but showed no signs of challenging him and Lance Stroll was a massive three seconds off the pace in fourth position. As Q3 got underway, it seemed pole position was Verstappen's for the taking.

So what went wrong?

Verstappen had found his advantage in Q1 and Q2 using the extreme wet tyres, but in Q3 the intermediates came into play. Parts of the track were starting to show signs of a drying line and that meant the larger contact patch of the intermediates was able to find grip on the track without aquaplaning.

But at the very start of Q3, it was still the crossover point between the extreme wets and the intermediates. Choosing the intermediates was still a big gamble and the only two drivers who tried it from the start were Racing Point's Sergio Perez and Renault's Esteban Ocon. To underline what a marginal call it was, Perez set the fastest time with the help of the intermediates while Ocon initially set the slowest time and opted to switch back to the safety of the wets.

Seeing his teammate 1.8s clear of him using the intermediates, Stroll radioed his pits to ask for the same tyres. Red Bull also saw the potential of the intermediates, but Verstappen was on a new fastest lap as he was approaching the pits -- a lap capable of beating Perez's existing fastest time on the inters -- making the decision harder.

Red Bull pulled him into the pits regardless, and while that may have looked like a mistake as his sector times were the fastest at that moment, they would not have been competitive enough to compete with the eventual top four times. Bringing Verstappen in for intermediates was the right choice as things transpired, although the exact timing of when and where he rejoined did not help his situation.

As he returned to the track on intermediates, Verstappen rejoined behind Kimi Raikkonen's slower Alfa Romeo, which meant he struggled to get the heat into the tyres that was so crucial to lap time. Nevertheless, the first sector of his fastest lap at the end of the session was a match for Stroll's and it was only when had a snap of oversteer at Turn 7 that he started to fall back.

"We struggled to turn the inters on compared to the extreme and you can see that these tyres are pretty tricky," team principal Christian Horner said after the session. "Max had looked supreme in Q1 and Q2 and then got caught behind Kimi on a couple of laps that didn't allow him to turn those tyres on and that final lap he had a snap [of oversteer] and lost about 0.6s at Turn 7.

"But when you haven't got the preparation and momentum through the faster corners, particularly with the dirty air from Kimi, it was difficult for him to generate that temperature, and unfortunately the snap at Turn 7 -- he was 0.6s faster at that point -- put him back to zero, so then had to do it again."

The key was being on the right tyres and having them at the right temperature when the track conditions were at their best at the end of the session. Stroll, Verstappen and Perez were all on the right tyres in the closing moments of Q3, but Stroll was the only one of those three who nailed a clean lap when it mattered. Even with the later switch to intermediates and the traffic, Verstappen had the potential to take pole but ultimately missed out with his mistake at Turn 7.

Credit where it's due

Stroll's lap was impressive regardless of whether Verstappen had the potential to beat it. The Racing Point has not been a match for the Red Bull all year, yet in some of the most difficult conditions all year the Canadian was the one who produced a quick, clean lap worthy of pole position.

He did so while lifting for yellow flags at Turn 7 where his more experienced teammate, who had been on a faster lap up until that point, had spun. The stewards investigated whether Stroll had ignored the yellows, but telemetry and onboard footage clearly showed him lifting off the throttle and coasting through the corner - enough for the stewards to agree he had shown caution as his teammate sat in the run off area.

Stroll still set personal best mini sectors at that part of the track, which is usually used as a barometer as to whether a driver ignored yellow flags, but because the conditions were improving so much at the end of the session, his faster sector times were deemed to be a result of the improving track conditions rather than him pushing on regardless of the yellows. Even with the lift, he still had a 0.290s advantage over Verstappen on the same tyres in the same conditions.

Whichever way you cut it, it was a great qualifying lap.

What happened to Hamilton and Mercedes?

For the first time this year, Mercedes failed to secure pole position. It took a combination of rain, a new track surface and some impressive laps from rival drivers, but Saturday's session finally proved the mighty W11 is beatable over a single lap.

The key was tyre temperature, and the Mercedes drivers simply couldn't generate enough of it in the conditions. Whether it was a setup issue or a fundamental weakness in the car wasn't entirely clear on Saturday evening, but the result is that Lewis Hamilton will start sixth and Valtteri Bottas ninth. The team believes it would have set a faster time if it had persevered on the extreme wet tyres rather than switching to the intermediates (because it was harder to generate temperature in the intermediates) but it still wouldn't have been enough.

To be fair to Mercedes, the low grip surface at Istanbul Park is a complete outlier on F1's 2020 calendar that would never have been considered during the car's design process, so it's perhaps no surprise that the team struggled to tailor the W11 to the extreme conditions. However, don't bet against Hamilton and Bottas coming back through the field in dry conditions on Sunday.

Grid penalties

  • Carlos Sainz - Three-place grid penalty, one penalty point on superlicence for impeding Sergio Perez in Q1.

  • Lando Norris - Five-place grid penalty, three penalty points on superlicence for failing to slow sufficiently under double-waved yellows in Q1.