Mercedes enjoy ‘best Friday so far’

Mercedes started off on the front foot in Spain with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton each taking turns at the top of the timesheets on Friday at the Barcelona circuit. 

Bottas led the way from Max Verstappen in FP1 before Hamilton edged out the Finn by just over a tenth in FP2 to lead a 1-2 for Mercedes. Meanwhile, Red Bull had a difficult afternoon with neither Verstappen or Sergio Perez able to set a representative lap time in second practice. 

Mercedes looked strong on both single lap and long run pace on Friday, holding the advantage over Red Bull. That led team boss Toto Wolff to label the day as the reigning world champion’s best start to a weekend so far this season. 

“It was good,” Wolff told Sky. “I think it was our best Friday so far, so pretty encouraging. We just discussed it on the pit wall so we have 24 hours to really screw it up!”

Both drivers were happy with the early balance and set-up of their respective W12s in Barcelona and unlike at the Portuguese GP, the team is not set to split its direction in an attempt to keep Red Bull at bay. 

That will give Hamilton and Bottas plenty of confidence heading into qualifying, with the seven-time world champion seeking a fifth consecutive Spanish GP victory. 

If past form in Barcelona is anything to go by, then history is on Mercedes’ side this weekend, with the German manufacturer sweeping up six out of seven victories in Spain across the V6 hybrid era. 

Red Bull optimistic despite slow start

The mood in the Red Bull camp was surprisingly upbeat following a tricky Friday that ended with Verstappen and Perez finishing well down the order in FP2. 

Red Bull has arguably had the quickest car at the opening three races of the season but that did not look to be the case in Barcelona, although there were certain caveats that skewed the true competitive picture. 

Verstappen made an error on his qualifying simulation run on the Soft tyres at the revised Turn 10. Unlike his teammate, Perez did complete his flying lap but the Mexican struggled to produce a good lap and wound up 0.748s slower than Hamilton’s best time. 

Perez’s race pace was more in the ballpark and Verstappen clearly left time on the table, leaving Red Bull genuinely encouraged that it will be right in the fight for the front row of the grid come qualifying. 

Verstappen, who will mark his 100th GP for Red Bull at the circuit he secured his first grand prix victory in 2016, was keen to take the positives from the day. 

“Overall, I think we had quite a good day,” he explained. “The car seems quite competitive, so I'm looking forward to tomorrow to try and improve a bit further but nothing too shocking today.”

Red Bull have one final hour of running on Saturday morning to iron out any issues and recover some of its current pace deficit to Mercedes before the battle for pole gets underway. 

A great day for Ferrari and Alpine 

With Red Bull slipping back in FP2, it was Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Alpine duo Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso who ended the day as Mercedes’ closest challengers. 

Leclerc rounded out a hugely positive Friday in Barcelona for Ferrari by finishing just half a second off pacesetter Bottas in FP1 and getting within 0.165s of Hamilton’s FP2 benchmark, while teammate Carlos Sainz joined him in the final top-10 order. 

“I think if we can be right behind the Mercedes and Red Bull that’s the best we can hope for right now,” Leclerc said of Ferrari’s prospects for qualifying.

“If there’s good surprises, even more than that, it will be welcome, but I think the objective should be to be just behind them.”

Alpine also impressed as the French squad looks to continue its strong Portuguese Grand Prix showing into the fourth round of the season in Spain. 

After an upgrade helped the team make a positive step forward in Portugal following a difficult start to the season, Ocon and Alonso both managed to get within four-tenths of Hamilton’s headline-grabbing time on Friday afternoon. 

Alonso in particular will be determined to continue his promising pace into the rest of the weekend as he looks to secure a strong result at his first home race since 2018. 

Small margins will define order 

The final FP2 order once again underlined just how close the midfield is this year, as well as the gains teams have made in cutting the gap to current F1 pacesetters Mercedes and Red Bull. 

Less than a second split the field from Hamilton in P1 down to Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin in 14th place, with the margins looking tighter than ever around the 4.675km, 16-turn venue. 

AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda were also right in the mix towards the sharp end of the grid on Friday, while Sebastian Vettel hailed Aston Martin’s upgrade as a “step forward” as he enjoyed his most productive day yet for the Silverstone-based outfit, ending FP2 just outside of the top-10. 

McLaren has also brought updates to Barcelona with a new floor and front wing but so far the team is yet to show the kind of pace that Lando Norris has capitalised on to sit third in the championship after three races. 

The Briton finished 12th, a tenth clear of new teammate Daniel Ricciardo who conceded he is still trying to get comfortable in the MCL35M and build up speed. 

Ricciardo acknowledged that small margins will prove the difference between making Q3 and suffering another shock Q1 elimination in Spain. 

“It shows that not only is F1 close this year amongst all teams, but it’s a track that everyone knows so well, so it’s just small margins,” the Australian said. 

“But we’ve certainly got to find some more tomorrow, because if we’re a second off, we might be back here. So certainly some tenths to find.”

 

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