There is just no stopping Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes at the moment – not even a rule change some hoped might peg them back.
Hamilton took his sixth pole position in eight races at the Italian Grand Prix on Saturday, and assuming he makes a good start will almost certainly follow it up with his 90th victory in the race on Sunday.
This was not one of Hamilton’s greatest laps, not like the one that put him half a second clear of team-mate Valtteri Bottas in Belgium last weekend.
That one, he said, was, along with the famous other-worldly one at Singapore 2018, “the two best I can remember”.
Monza, Hamilton said, was just “very good” and “very clean”. Good enough to edge out Bottas by 0.069 seconds.
What it also did was provide a resounding response to those who felt that a ban on changing engine modes through qualifying and race might diminish some of Mercedes’ huge advantage this season.
The rule change, Hamilton and Mercedes have been at pains to stress, came after intense lobbying from Red Bull, whose driver Max Verstappen has been the closest thing to a challenge Mercedes have had this year.
So it was with no little schadenfreude that Mercedes greeted the sight of Verstappen down in an unfamiliar fifth place on the grid – beaten by McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Racing Point’s Sergio Perez.
There is no love lost between Mercedes and Red Bull, and Bottas wasted no time in taking the opportunity to rub it in.
“Not sure how happy Red Bull is now with this engine change,” the Finn said.
Since the news of this rule change broke, Mercedes have said that the benefit from their so-called high-power qualifying “party mode” – a label Hamilton first gave it, even though he denied it on Saturday – was nowhere near as big as people believed, and that they would use the effective ban on it to their benefit on Sundays.
It’s not yet clear exactly how much the rule change has affected Mercedes – their margin over the field in qualifying at Monza was certainly reduced from some previous races, even if it was still enormous – but so far, it seems to be going as they said.
Team boss Toto Wolff said: “We have seen today for the first time how the level of performance has changed between the teams, and there is some interesting outcomes. Maybe the ones that pushed the hardest didn’t show great performance today.
“For us it was important to face this new situation in the most professional way. Once we knew this was coming, we said, ‘OK, let’s use it as an opportunity.’
“The mentality in Brixworth (Mercedes’ engine base) was great and they said: ‘Bring it on, let’s come up with a strong mode for qualifying that we can run all race.’ Overall, we have lost very little qualifying performance but gained a lot in the race. We can run the engine much harder in the race.”
Verstappen said he did not believe Red Bull’s lack of performance over one lap on Saturday was down to any loss for their Honda engine in qualifying.
“I don’t think we went backwards,” he said, pointing out that Monza is a one-off kind of track, on which single-lap pace is unduly influenced by the desire of most teams to use the slipstream.
But his summation of qualifying was not exactly great news for his team regardless.
“Just not a good weekend for us,” he said. “Struggling for pace from the start. Seems like on the low-downforce our car struggles a bit more with a sensitive rear, just not really gripping up like it should do.
“I was interested to see how our car would go on low downforce but it highlighted the issues we had all year. It is just not a very fast car.”
Can Sainz keep the Red Bull behind?
The stand-out performance of Saturday was undoubtedly Sainz. The Spaniard said he was “shaking” after his lap – because, after a snap of oversteer in the first Lesmo, he had to hang it all out in Ascari and Parabolica to make up the time.
“Somehow the car stuck and I gained quite a bit of lap time through Ascari and Parabolica and that left me with very high adrenaline,” he said. “The risk paid off but it came with a higher heart rate and more adrenaline than it should have been.”
This was McLaren’s equal best qualifying performance of the season, and their best in the dry, and Sainz said he was not sure why the McLaren was quite so fast.
“The feeling with the car is just a tiny bit better that it puts you at the front of the midfield instead of in the middle of the midfield, which is where we normally are,” he said.
“I am feeling confident. This is a very confidence-based track where you need to trust the car moving around a bit more with the lower downforce, arriving at those big braking zones at 330-340km/h and hit the brake pedal as hard as you can.
“You need confidence, and the car is well balanced. It is giving me the confidence, that entry stability that I am very keen on, and has allowed us to put in a very good lap in Q1 and evolve rapidly through qualifying.”
Sainz is aware, though, that holding on to third place in the race will not be easy – and he is particularly worried about Verstappen and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who starts seventh.
“Verstappen is normally the only guy who can keep pace with the Mercs and for us it is impossible to do that,” Sainz said, “and if he manages to have the race pace he normally has with the Red Bull, which normally come to life in the race, it will be difficult to keep them behind.
“Ricciardo is a bit more of a question mark because he is starting a bit further back.
“But that Renault was very strong in race pace in Spa and in (the race-simulation runs) in second practice. They will be the trickiest ones.
“Racing Point are a big question mark – when they get it right with their new car concept this year they fly and when they don’t they struggle a bit more. It is tricky to predict.
“But we are in a good position and we will try to keep ourselves there, knowing that Verstappen and the Renaults will be very difficult to keep behind.”