Red Bull team boss Christian Horner says Max Verstappen drove an “unbelievable lap” to qualify on the front row and split the Mercedes drivers ahead of the Russian Grand Prix.
Horner noted the Dutch driver benefited from a tow from Valtteri Bottas, the man he bumped from second position to join polesitter Lewis Hamilton on the front row for the Russian GP.
Along with Bottas, Verstappen was able to get through Q2 on the medium tyre while Hamilton was forced to go to through on the softs, meaning the top two will start the Russian GP on different strategies.
Following Sebastian Vettel’s crash which caused a red flag midway through Q2, Verstappen and team-mate Alex Albon were the first cars out of the pitlane when the session restarted, with Red Bull uncertain if the Dutch driver’s medium tyre lap would be enough to secure a Q3 spot.
“It was vital that they both got clear laps,” said Horner. “So that was the most important thing for us to send them out early to get them clear [of] traffic, so they could do their preparation.
“We aborted the lap with Max, which enabled him to start on the medium tyre. It was a late call, but it was the right call, and that gives him a good tyre for the start of the grand prix tomorrow. It was in Turn 18, it doesn’t get any more knife-edge than that.”
In Q3 Verstappen was the last driver to head out to complete his final run when he was able to bump Bottas from second place with the aid of a tow from the Finn.
“He was pretty smart,” said Horner. “He waited for Bottas to pass him on the end of his qualifying lap and then started his lap, benefiting from a good tow from Valtteri.
“And that gave him a tenth on the run down to Turn 1, and then obviously he had to make it all stick for the rest of the lap. And it was an unbelievable lap, really one of the best laps he’s driven this season, I would say.”
Despite Verstappen’s strong showing in qualifying, Horner admitted it hasn’t been an easy weekend so far: “It’s felt very bitsy. We’ve seen flashes of promise, but we haven’t managed to put a lap together because of traffic and red flags and all kinds of incidents. But Max was more confident than anybody going into that qualifying session, and he really delivered.
“Alex did a good job to get himself into into Q3. And then unfortunately, he was just at the wrong end of the group, a couple of tenths could have made life look very different for him.”
Sochi will be the first time that Verstappen has started from the front row since the Styrian GP, the second race of the 2020 season.
“He’s been getting closer and closer to that,” said Horner. “He’s done a super job today to split the Mercedes pair, and of course, starting on a different tyre to Lewis, we’ll see how that strategy pans out tomorrow.
“If Lewis gets a decent start and we have a nice tow then I don’t think anybody would be too upset about that. But we saw in the F2 race the polesitter was able to lead into Turn 1 if you get a good start.”