Mercedes returned to the top of the Formula 1 timesheets as Valtteri Bottas completed a Friday practice double ahead of this weekend’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

There was action aplenty across the pair of hour-long practice sessions as the Imola circuit looked resplendent as it basked in the springtime sun, and plenty of talking points to come out of the day.

Here’s five things we learned from Friday’s practice running at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix…

A troubled day for Red Bull

Red Bull and Max Verstappen had been tipped as the pre-event favourites coming into the weekend after his narrow defeat at the hands of Lewis Hamilton last time out in Bahrain three weeks ago.

Confidence was rightly high in the Red Bull camp as it appeared to hold the edge over Mercedes at the season-opener despite ultimately losing out on the win, and there was a genuine sense of optimism heading to Imola.

But things didn’t get off to the best of starts on Friday as first Sergio Perez lost crucial running in his bid to get up to speed at his new team following a collision with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon in FP1, before a driveshaft failure curtailed Verstappen’s programme in second practice.

Verstappen conceded Red Bull has been left “a little bit” on the back foot at Imola going into qualifying, but the Dutchman remains upbeat about his side’s chances as he looks to break his run of three consecutive retirements on Italian soil this weekend.


Mercedes return to form

The practice order had a much more familiar look to it at Imola as Bottas led Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to the top of the times in both FP1 and FP2.

Bottas and Hamilton concluded they were feeling “a lot happier” with their W12 F1 car and were left buoyed by the clear step forward Mercedes has made as the reigning world champions returned to form following its performance struggles in Bahrain.

The team has worked hard to try and understand why its 2021 challenger currently holds no strengths over Red Bull’s RB16B, with Bottas revealing on Thursday that he had “lost count” of the amount of set-ups he had experimented with in the simulator between races.

Hamilton said he believes that a combination of Mercedes’ work in the three-week gap, Imola’s layout and lower temperatures than in Bahrain have all helped the team find a “nice sweet spot” with its car.

While Friday was hugely encouraging for Mercedes, both drivers remain wary of the threat Red Bull pose despite encountering problems on day one, with Bottas convinced there is much more to come from their chief rivals.


 

AlphaTauri at front of congested midfield?

A very impressive lap from Pierre Gasly ensured AlphaTauri ended the day third-fastest and just 0.078s down on Bottas’ benchmark, while Yuki Tsunoda was up there too in FP2 finishing seventh.

Gasly completed much of his running on the Soft compound and showed strong pace on both the short on long runs.

It was also an encouraging afternoon for Ferrari with Carlos Sainz getting within three-tenths of Bottas’ pace, with teammate Charles Leclerc not far behind in P5.

Conversely, McLaren did not appear as competitive as it was in Bahrain, leaving Lando Norris anticipating a titanic qualifying battle to get into Q3.

“It looks very close,” Norris acknowledged. “Ferrari are looking very strong. A good step stronger than what they were in Bahrain.

"AlphaTauri are looking very fast. So it is going to be tricky. Getting into Q3 will be important.”

Antonio Giovinazzi and Lance Stroll also ended FP2 in the top-10 for Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin, while Fernando Alonso noted an improvement in performance as Alpine ran new aerodynamic parts on the A521 to evaluate its planned upgrades in its bid to propel itself towards the front of the midfield.

“We managed to complete our test items programme and I’m happy,” the returning two-time world champion said. “Happy with the progress, all the new parts seem to work.

“We need to make further analysis but we are quite optimistic that they make a step forward in terms of performance so let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”

Old-school Imola bites back hard

Imola’s iconic tight and twisty old-school layout proved a real test for the field on Friday as a number of drivers found themselves making mistakes, some bigger than others.

After spinning out of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin found himself pirouetting on two occasions in the morning session.

The Russian brought out the second red flag of FP1 when he spun his VF-21 into the barriers after running wide onto the gravel, leading Haas team principal Guenther Steiner to concede his driver is “trying sometimes a little bit too hard - but he needs to find that limit”.

Red flags flew once more in the closing stages of FP2 as Leclerc lost control of his Ferrari and went off at Rivazzi while pushing hard, ending the afternoon with a shunt the wall.

With very little margin for error, cutting out mistakes will be key to securing that all-important grid position in qualifying.

F1’s latest political war begins

Political warfare is nothing new in F1 but the Imola paddock rumbled with its latest storyline on Friday, with Aston Martin team principal Otmar Szafnauer’s revelation that the Silverstone-based outfit is pushing the FIA to consider tweaking its aero rules mid-season.

Aston Martin has been left frustrated by new floor changes introduced for 2021 to cut downforce that it feels has unfairly penalised teams that run low rake cars, including itself and Mercedes.

Szafnauer wants the FIA to make things “equitable” between the high-rake and low-rake runners by carrying out an unprecedented U-turn over the rule changes made over the winter, and even refused to rule out legal against if planned talks do not go the way it hopes.

In response, Red Bull boss Christian Horner said he was “struggling to get my head around” Aston Martin’s stance, adding the team is “a little naive” to think such changes could be made during the season.

 

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