Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Imola, 2021

Mercedes led Friday practice – but are Red Bull still the team to beat?

2021 Emilia-Romagna GP Friday practice analysis

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The first round of the 2021 Formula 1 season indicated it would be a close battle between Mercedes and Red Bull at the top, with a potentially even closer fight for best of the rest behind. The second round has already clouded that picture.

First of all, as in the Bahrain Grand Prix, track limits violations and the resultant deleted lap times were a big talking point at Imola and had an effect on the time sheet. In first practice for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, there were 15 occasions of laps being deleted, and that increased to 17 in the second session with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc being one of the worst offenders with four separate laps being deleted.

One of those happened to be the fastest of the day, a 1’15.367, and was set on the soft tyre. The only driver who got close to that, and kept their lap, was Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and he set his personal best on the medium tyre. While it’s not a surprise to see Mercedes outpacing Ferrari using a slower tyre, the difference is here is that Bottas couldn’t match his own medium tyre pace when he switched to the soft.

His team mate Lewis Hamilton, who did make a small improvement when he swapped out his mediums, didn’t really have an answer on the step between the compounds and whether Mercedes were optimising one or under-utilising the other.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Imola, 2021
Verstappen’s day was disrupted by a driveshaft problem
“I don’t really know. I didn’t feel like there was a big difference between the tyres,” he said. “I’m sure the tyre guys will let us know in the coming hours. But I’m sure there’s still more performance to gain somehow. But it might be a small number.”

Pirelli’s F1 tyre chief Mario Isola suggested what may have explain Mercedes’ practice pace which puzzled the world champion.

“The delta lap time between compounds is different from our expectation,” Isola said. “It’s 0.5 seconds between hard and medium, and 0.7s between medium and soft. We were estimating that the level of grip of the hard compound was lower because of the cold temperature.

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“While the hard is working, for sure it’s not the first lap that is the quickest but on the long run it is a good compound. The medium is the compound for the weekend, and the soft is able to deliver a good fast lap without graining. Obviously we saw some graining in the afternoon with the high fuel, but again, how the teams are able to use the soft during the race depends on their ability to control the graining, basically.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Imola, 2021
Leclerc was quick, but crashed
Neither of the Mercedes drivers complained of graining on Friday, both were particularly complimentary of the set-up improvements made since they were staring at a deficit of several tenths of a second to Red Bull in Bahrain, while the Red Bull drivers also had their own pace conundrum.

Max Verstappen was denied a proper performance run in the afternoon after his driveshaft broke and left him having recorded just five laps in total. Prior to his mechanical issue he had looked like he could match Mercedes, and in the morning session he was just 0.058s off Bottas’s benchmark pace.

What Verstappen didn’t benefit from either was the track evolution, which Isola said reduced the graining on the soft compound tyre and made it undeniably the better performing tyre later into the day.

Sergio Perez was running on that compound in the afternoon in the second Red Bull car, after losing morning running to a clash with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon during the radio blackout at the track, and he was 0.850s off the pace of Hamilton on the same compound in sixth place.

Between him and the Mercedes was fellow Honda-powered driver AlphaTauri Pierre Gasly, who seems very sure of his pace and was 0.078s off the top, and the Ferraris of Carlos Sainz Jnr and Leclerc who were also confident with their car but far less certain on whether they were really as close to the pace as they seemed.

Sainz’s best lap was just 0.283s slower than Bottas, a marked improvement on the pace shown in Bahrain, and once again he admitted that he wasn’t pushing to the limit yet – even on the performance run where he set his best lap – as he continues to learn the intricacies of his Ferrari car.

So after Friday there are four teams all looking very competitive going into the third practice session and qualifying, but none of them really sure just how competitive they are.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Combined practice times

PosDriverCarFP1FP2Total laps
1Valtteri BottasMercedes1’16.5641’15.55148
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’16.6051’15.56151
3Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri-Honda1’16.8881’15.62951
4Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’16.8881’15.83456
5Charles LeclercFerrari1’16.7961’16.37141
6Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda1’18.2281’16.41140
7Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda1’19.7811’16.41937
8Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’17.9351’16.48539
9Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’18.0581’16.51349
10Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda1’16.6221’16.99926
11Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’17.4891’16.73744
12Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’18.3601’16.81747
13Nicholas LatifiWilliams-Mercedes1’17.7391’16.82353
14Fernando AlonsoAlpine-Renault1’17.4571’16.83550
15Sebastian VettelAston Martin-Mercedes1’17.9841’17.09250
16George RussellWilliams-Mercedes1’17.8661’17.17956
17Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’17.8831’17.27343
18Daniel RicciardoMcLaren-Mercedes1’17.7691’17.28147
19Mick SchumacherHaas-Ferrari1’19.4801’17.35046
20Nikita MazepinHaas-Ferrari1’18.8231’17.85738

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2021 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix

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Author information

Elliot Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching Photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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18 comments on “Mercedes led Friday practice – but are Red Bull still the team to beat?”

  1. Mercedes have…

    – Won the last 7 championships
    – Won the first race of this season
    – Finished first in both practice sessions

    Can we stop pretending they’re not the team to beat? I know they play this whole expectation management game but the way the media fall for it laughable.

    1. Thank you, exactly. Faux drama, that’s all it is. So sick of Merc.

    2. Exactly.

      Reply moderated
    3. @cduk_mugello No because sky sports falls for every dummy the Brackley people feed them. It all started in 2016 when Ferrari was clearly .6 down after winter testing and they were .6 down in melbourne yet Merc sold the dummy that ferrari was the team to beat.

      1. Enquiring minds would ask who are the real dummies?

    4. What are you on about? Ferrari were clearly faster in 17, 18 and 19.

      Red Bull is miles ahead this year.

      1. I hope it’s sarcasm, ferrari was competitive for big part of 2017, but in the races mercedes were stronger they dominated (example canada), while the races where ferrari were stronger they barely won, plus mercedes were more reliable.

        Ferrari would’ve probably been competitive for all of 2018 and ahead on straight-line speed, which helped at monza, spa, canada for example, but due to vettel’s silly mistake, they took a development risk that didn’t pay off, and you see they fell behind on performance roughly after vettel’s monza mistake.

        And then ofc ferrari had some qualifying speed and straight line speed in 2019 but in the end they weren’t even competitive in most races, they won 3 races, singapore fine, monza barely since vettel has the habit of spinning out of contention early on, spa barely, they should’ve won bahrain were it not for leclecl’s mechanical problem, and they probably had a chance here and there, example baku, were it not for leclerc’s qualifying mistake, but nothing like championship contending.

        And now red bull is good but mercedes seem to have the upper hand, race pace matters and reliability does too.

    5. And yet here you are watching every race as it comes…..and that’s why it’s called a race because despite your insinuations, the winner is not a given but determined at the flag, with all technical, strategic, weather variables at play up to that point. Enjoy the racing……

      Reply moderated
    6. Hear hear, even this site fell for it. Remember Austria some time ago when all of a sudden Max started charging from the midfield towards the front and Mercedes ‘suddenly lost it’. That came at a extrordinary welcome time when Mercedes had a terrible long dominant streak… Its all a scheme between Mercedes and Liberty. Lets not forget Libertys business is selling advertising space or subscriptions. Totally pre set up situation. And we are looking at it again. If you are a fan of Mercedes and Lewis (which is getting harder every year) you have nothing to worry about this season.

      1. Can I borrow your tin-foil hat when you’ve finished with it?

        1. yes, sure. If that keeps you happy.

    7. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth….

      FP1 – Top three drivers were separated by 0.058 seconds.

      FP2 – Gasly was just 0.068s behind Hamilton (both times set on the softs). Verstappen didn’t set a representative time but we have no reason to believe he wouldn’t have been faster than Gasly (he was 2/10s quicker in FP1).

      Verstappen is my bet for pole by similar margin to Bahrain.

      1. Call me back when Mercedes isn’t on top of both drivers and team championships

        1. @paeschi FP3 – Verstappen 0.5s faster than Hamilton.

          Damn, that Mercedes is a rocketship.

    8. You should be sick of the other teams for not being able to mount a serious challenge.

    9. FP3 – Verstappen 0.5s faster than Hamilton.

      1. Why refer to FP’s and Q’s? No points on Saturday. The discussion is about winning, not being fast over one lap.

    10. Thank you. Really getting tired with all these folks and journalist that fall for the Liberty Mercedes Marketing machine. I recon some 7-10 of these articles to go however….

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