The 2019 titles may have already been settled, leaving little more than P3 in the drivers’ championship to fight for, but that has not prevented some late mind games setting in at the front of the pack in Formula 1.

Max Verstappen’s outburst over Ferrari’s sudden lack of pace in Austin two weeks ago sent the rumour mill on fire regarding the legality of its engine, something the FIA’s additional technical directive issued in the lead-up to the Brazilian Grand Prix only added fuel to.

Yet after Friday’s practice running, it seemed that normal service had resumed. Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were once again the drivers on top through the speed trap, with their advantage through the final sector – a 1.2km blast from Juncao – suggesting that even in the wake of the scrutiny, Ferrari still had a power advantage.

Mercedes and Red Bull looked to have stacked their chips on the middle sector, hoping the gains they could make through the slow corners would be enough to negate Ferrari’s advantage in a straight line.

But things changed on Saturday. With all engines turned up to full pelt, Ferrari was not head and shoulders clear as anticipated – leading to yet more confusion over where the power advantage truly lay at the head of the pack.

Verstappen’s charge to pole was dominant. He topped all three sessions, and strangely set his fastest time in Q2 – a full five-thousandths of a second up on his eventual pole time – but was untouchable come Q3. He sat on provisional pole despite a scruffy opening lap, making up for it on his second to grab his second (or third, depending on your inclination…) pole in F1.

Verstappen was asked about the grunt of his Honda engine after qualifying, and was quick to point out he had not been purple through Sector 3.

“I was not the fastest in the last sector, but we were the fastest in the second sector, where the most corners are,” he said. “I think throughout the whole year, I think both from the chassis side and the engine side, we made good gains, and we just continue to work like that and experiment for next year. Very happy of course with the progress throughout the season.”

Honda has certainly progressed – perhaps a little too much for its rivals’ liking, as Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton weighed in after qualifying.

“I think Max’s time was a bit far away so I think we have to admit we got beaten fair and square,” Vettel conceded, before joking: “It was a bit of a surprise to see them that quick on the straights, so… a little bit suspicious!”

Offering a more serious analysis of the Red Bulls’ straight-line speed, Vettel conceded it was “a bit of a surprise” to see them go so quickly.

“Usually we’ve seen a lot of qualifying sessions and we were a bit faster than everyone in the straight, losing a bit in the corners, but today we were as quick or Max and Alex were as fast down the straights as us,” Vettel said.

“That’s about it, I don’t know why. I know we didn’t do anything different.”

Hamilton – almost two-tenths down in P3 – was just as puzzled.

“We were losing out to Max on the straights by quite a chunk, which was the majority of where the time was coming from,” he said. “I don’t fully understand it because we’ve only had the few engines that we have, so I don’t know if you can bring upgrades to the engines once you have a new one.

“But anyway, they were very quick, and we’ve got work to do for sure. My boys back home are working as hard as they can for next year.

“[Red Bull] are quickest in the middle sector, so they obviously still have the same amount of downforce but obviously more power this weekend. Considering we are at a higher altitude, I have no idea where that comes from.”

Perhaps at long last, it seems that Honda has truly arrived in the power battle in F1, offering Verstappen and Red Bull enough to make the difference at Interlagos on Saturday.

Ferrari still remains the team to beat in the power rankings, though, no matter how strong Red Bull may have been. Leclerc topped the speed gun crossing the finish line at 331.2 km/h in qualifying. Verstappen was some 5.5 km/h down on 326.7 km/h.

In fact, Leclerc had a decent shot at pole had his Q3 run more smoothly. He was left angry with himself after the session, and rightly so: he’d left almost one-quarter of a second on the table, adding up his ideal sector times through qualifying. Verstappen’s ideal lap of 1m07.447s would still have been good enough for P1, albeit by just 0.039 seconds. Ferrari remains in the hunt.

But should Verstappen carry this pace over to Sunday, it will be difficult for the chasing pack to beat him without any divine intervention (or Esteban Ocon).

If the RB15 continues to run so smoothly and quickly through the middle sector, and if the engine holds on exiting Juncao all the way to Turn 1, it may well be enough to continue Verstappen’s Interlagos mastery – and perhaps offer some redemption, 12 months on from his unfortunate defeat.

 

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