Liam Lawson only made it onto the Formula 1 grid for the first time at the end of August, having taken over the wheel at AlphaTauri at the last minute after Daniel Ricciardo was injured at Zandvoort.
But in just his third taste of Grand Prix qualifying, the 21-year-old Kiwi succeeded in achieving something that it has taken many other rookies whole seasons to pull off: making it all the way through to Q3.
To be honest it hadn’t been looking on the cards, with Lawson not making the top ten in any of the preceding practice sessions at Marina Bay Street Circuit.
But it was clear that the AlphaTauri had some serious pace this weekend, with Lawson’s team mate Yuki Tsunoda shooting to the top of the times before the red flag for Lance Stroll’s accident at the end of Q1.
Lawson also took advantage of the situation and evolving track conditions to easily make the cut in fourth place. But the second round was a tougher proposition and his hopes of making Q3 came down to the last second.
He made it – and his success meant that Max Verstappen missed the cut and ended in P11, an achievement that might not make Lawson entirely popular in the garage of the senior Red Bull squad.
“It’s obviously exciting being in Q3,” Lawson said, while adding that he was disappointed not to do better in the final top ten pole shoot-out which saw him end up slowest, securing P10 on tomorrow’s grid.
“I’m happy to make it into Q3, but there’s more potential to be higher up. It’s a shame, but I’m still learning and there’s more to come.
“We didn’t maximise the performance, and it’s something we have to look at,” he said. “It was warm-up related – I didn’t feel the jump in grip for the last lap and there was lots of traffic in the last sector, so that was tricky.”
While P10 is without doubt another career-defining moment for Lawson, the driver is keenly aware that it’s tomorrow that counts.
“Today went well, but tomorrow is the important one. I’m starting in a good position in P10, but two hours is a long race and will be challenging. We’ll focus on maximising our car and driving our race.”
Lawson will be starting five places ahead of his team mate, after Tsunoda was blocked by traffic in his first Q2 run and then made a mistake in his second and final attempt which forced him to abort that run as well.
“I made a mistake, a lock-up into turn 14,” the Japanese driver said. “I’m sorry for my team. It’s a real shame, and I’m very frustrated because the car pace is incredible. We see how tomorrow goes and I’ll try my best to score points.”
“It’s a shame for Yuki because we have a strong package, and he looks comfortable in the car,” commented Lawson.
“Looking at qualifying tonight we believed we had the pace to get both cars into Q3,” AlphaTauri technical director Jody Egginton said. “The pace and balance of the car in Q1 were good, and we looked well-placed to make more progress.
“[Unfortunately] Yuki wasn’t able to set a time on his first fast lap, and went off on his second run and didn’t set a time. It’s very frustrating as his pace in Q1 was good enough to make the cut for Q3.
“Liam had a smoother qualifying and made good progress. Getting to Q3 is his reward, which is pleasing to see, as it’s his first time here in F1.
“Looking at the big picture, we appear to have made a step forward in performance here. It’s positive and something we need to validate and build on,” he pointed out.
“Our long-run pace looked okay on Friday, so we need to exploit this and be prepared to take opportunities to get Yuki moving forward so he can maximise the package.
“Overall there are some positives to take, but tomorrow is when it counts in terms of meeting our objectives.“
AlphaTauri is currently bottom of the constructors championship with just three points from the first 14 races of the season. It has ground to make up if it wants to catch and overhaul Haas and Alfa Romeo in the remaining eight GPs.