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Formula 1 Emilia Romagna GP

The Red Bull turnaround behind Max Verstappen's Imola F1 pole

Unfamiliar feelings of gloom washed over the Red Bull camp after Formula 1's Friday practice sessions at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, as Max Verstappen was "severely off the pace".

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, in the pit lane

Finding a remedy to the team's situation, where it seemed to struggle for a cadence over the kerbs and through the second sector of the Imola circuit, was going to test the team's usual overnight work heading into Saturday. Both the trackside and factory divisions at Red Bull had to get their hands dirty to decipher the root cause of Verstappen and Sergio Perez's problems throughout Friday, burning the midnight oil to find something that would rescue its weekend.

McLaren and Ferrari were both ahead of Red Bull in the one-lap pace stakes on Friday. On the hard tyre, Mercedes even looked to be a threat on the FP2 long runs versus the medium-shod RB20s.

The Red Bulls' pace had been improved slightly by Saturday's FP3 session, but the car was still not entirely comfortable to drive. It resulted in a nervy wait for qualifying, as tinkering persisted to unlock something in the important sessions.

But there's one maxim in theatre that Red Bull hoped to follow: "it'll be alright on the night". Net result? Verstappen claimed pole over both McLarens, while the Ferraris didn't really get a look in for a potential front-row start. A tangible sense of relief exuded from Verstappen who had admitted that, after Friday's running, he'd have simply been content with a top-five result from qualifying. 

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Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

It was through Acque Minerali where Red Bull struggled to make a splash on Friday. The shifting balance of the car made the RB20 difficult to drive through the double right-hander; sometimes, the car felt too on-the-nose as the balance of grip shifted excessively towards the front tyres. Verstappen thought he was going to spin in those instances, noting that it was "easy to lose the car" after FP2.

Pulling at the main threads from the trackside team's post-FP2 debriefs and the simulator support work at the factory, Red Bull made changes to the car for FP3 - but now, there were different problems to solve. "We tried a lot of things, of course quite different to what we had yesterday," Verstappen explained of the team's overnight work. "But then even this morning it was not really feeling that great, because the balance shifted the other way. We wanted to optimise a few things here and there, but it was just a lot more difficult than we expected it to be, for whatever reason."

"But everyone just stuck together. They kept on thinking about what we could do, also back at the factory, and we got there in the end."

The balance shift might be partly down to the effect of wind; Friday's practice sessions were slightly breezier by comparison to a still Saturday afternoon, but other environmental factors - track temperature, the impact of support categories rubbering in the circuit, and general track evolution - will have had their part to play in FP3 feeling different. Both drivers were adamant that the new upgrades were not behind the problems, Verstappen giving them his appraisal of "they did the job". 

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

It was between FP3 and qualifying when the penny finally faced its precipitous drop - although Verstappen went into Q1 still shouldering a tentative approach. Red Bull had not yet been able to find where the balance was but, conversely, it had found something almost as good: where the balance wasn't.

"There was really no reference going into qualifying," Verstappen added. "But it felt straight away a lot better. I felt more comfortable. I could attack corners finally a bit more. It all started to come together."

Balance is an often nebulous term in F1 - it's usually subjective and depends on the drivers' sentiments towards understeer and oversteer. Verstappen likes his cars to tend towards oversteer, and has excellent control on the throttle and brakes to balance the rear end out, but he was not a fan of the car being so skewed towards its front wheels in FP2 - and was worried that the rear was going to buckle.

Perez was more specific on where the issues lay with the RB20, having gone through the rigamarole himself of struggling with a car outside of its natural set-up habitat. The Mexican was dumped out in Q2, where he was onto the back foot in having to start the intermediate qualifying phase on scrubbed tyres. On his final set, he revealed that he "picked up a lot of rear grip and I went straight into Turn 7, and lost two and a half tenths", which rather correlates with the idea that the balance had shifted slightly too far rearwards for FP3.

He also echoed Verstappen's comments that simply having the confidence to "attack" the kerbs was the key to transforming the Red Bull's fortunes in qualifying. In FP1, the Red Bull appeared to absorb the smaller kerb strikes nicely and barely seemed affected by the rumble strip out of Acque Minerali - but the compliance over the larger kerbs looked far more variable.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"I think it is just a very tricky track to get it properly right. We were playing a lot with the car, with the ride, with the set-up here and there," Perez detailed. "We tried everything. It was good to see Max made a lot of progress and I felt from my side of the car it was getting better but unfortunately, we didn't get to show it."

"I think mainly, one of the issues is the ride, the kerbing. You have a lot of kerbs around here. And just balance. You need that confidence on entry to attack those medium-speed corners, those braking corners. If the balance is a little bit off, it can be costly."

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Once the car was in a frame where Verstappen found it a more malleable contender, it was up to his driving to make the difference. "It's just following the track, to be honest. I mean, Q1, Q2, Q3, just knowing where there is maybe a bit more time to gain, you try to hook up the corners a bit better. Then of course the final lap is all out - you try to risk it all, which I think you could see in the final corner - I had a bit of a moment there!"

He was also helped by his adopted "tow-buddy" Nico Hulkenberg into Turn 1 on his final flyer, assistance that he agreed helped him overall despite a snatch at the brakes into the second part of the Tamburello chicane. He gained just over a tenth though the tow itself, a delta that halved through the Turn 2 "miss", but nailing the Variante Alta chicane was also key to his improvement overall.

Race pace will present uncharted waters for Red Bull with the set-up it went into qualifying with. The longer runs on Friday did not look particularly special and stacked up at about fourth-best when combining those who ran with both medium and hard tyres. Verstappen is confident that the changes will have introduced more performance in race trim, but he noted that the two McLarens surrounding him on the grid would be "strong" - the papaya cars looked like the most consistent proposition across a grand prix stint.

After Miami's loss to McLaren, it looked as though Red Bull was set to concede once more after Friday's practice sessions. Instead, it dusted itself off and has now positioned itself as the favourite to take victory in Sunday's 63-lap affair at Imola. Verstappen will likely face a stern challenge from the cars behind him, but it's already taken a mighty effort from Red Bull to get him this far into the hunt. Another final push for Sunday is inevitable.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Daniel Ricciardo, RB F1 Team VCARB 01

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Daniel Ricciardo, RB F1 Team VCARB 01

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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