Has Mercedes really taken a step forward?

After being well beaten last weekend at the Styrian Grand Prix, Mercedes appeared to hit back in Friday practice with Lewis Hamilton topping the timesheets ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas in the second session. 

The Mercedes pair were crushed by Max Verstappen last time out at the same venue, with many expecting it to be a similar story in the Styrian hills this weekend. 

Pirelli has gone one step softer this weekend in terms of its allocation so it’s no surprise the times in FP2 were significantly faster than they were at the same stage as last weekend.

However, Mercedes has made the biggest step relative to a week ago - 1.273s of improvement, compared to Red Bull only improving by 0.672s. 

The Mercedes W12 has often been tricky to set up and proved a challenge to get it into the right working window. Back-to-back races at the same venue mean you have significantly more time to get the car to your liking and with a whole weekend’s worth of data in your back pocket, it looks like Mercedes has come out the traps, all guns blazing. 

Both drivers were happy with the car balance after practice, with Bottas saying: “I think we started OK in terms of how the car feels, much better than last week and, hopefully, we can build on from that.”

After the session, team boss Toto Wolff seemed to suggest that Mercedes was running a slightly higher power mode compared to Red Bull, with the championship leaders likely going to take a step forward in qualifying - as Mercedes always used to do when ‘party mode’ was a thing.

“Carefully optimistic,” Wolff told Sky Sports F1. “I think probably the speech that Red Bull had all these years - I expect more engine to come from these guys tomorrow but we’ve improved in some of the corner sequences so that’s encouraging.

“I think a tiny bit more engine [mode than Red Bull] and then we also got it right. There were more mistakes on the laps before and these ones were pretty good.”

On balance, Mercedes has improved but whether it will be enough to topple an in-form Verstappen in front of many of his adoring fans, remains to be seen.

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Red Bull has more to come

With Mercedes leading the way in second practice, Verstappen slotted into third place in the final classification, just over two-tenths shy of Hamilton’s 1m04.523s. 

The Dutchman looked most comfortable on the harder compounds, leading the way during the early stages when running on Pirelli’s C4 medium tyre. 

Hamilton and Wolff both predict Red Bull to make a significant improvement overnight and given the dominant pace it showed last weekend - taking pole by over 0.2s and winning the grand prix by 35s - it would be surprising not to see Verstappen back on top when it matters. 

The championship leader was happy with the handling of his Red Bull RB16B and didn’t give any slight cause for concern when assessing his day after the session.

“I think from our side, it wasn’t perfect on that run. But nevertheless, I felt good in the car, everything felt quite good,” Verstappen explained.

“There are no real problems, just need to make sure that we have a bit more pace on the soft because I think on the medium, we look good, and also in the long runs, we look decent. At the end of the day, that’s the most important.”

Sergio Perez has a lot of work to do though, finishing the day in 11th. 

He was nearly a second shy of Hamilton’s benchmark and couldn’t get the soft tyre working over one lap.

His race runs looked to be right on the pace - as they always do - but Perez can’t afford to qualify poorly, especially as Bottas has no grid penalty to serve this time around.

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Aston Martin, AlphaTauri look strong

Aston Martin enjoyed its best Friday of the season as Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel both ended the day inside of the top five. 

Stroll had a strong weekend last time out, finishing eighth but is a welcome improvement for Vettel, who could only manage 12th at the Styrian GP. 

Like Mercedes, there is a question whether Aston Martin was running more aggressive engine modes relative to its immediate opposition but regardless, a positive day for the Silverstone-based outfit. 

“It’s Friday so obviously if we are P5 tomorrow that would be amazing but it’s still early days and I think maybe we were a little bit more aggressive than other people,” Vettel said.

“But it’s definitely good, we’ll take it, and I think we tried a couple of things as well so let’s see tomorrow. Different conditions this weekend, hopefully we’ve done our homework in the time in between and are a bit stronger this weekend.”

AlphaTauri continued to impress with Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly well inside the top ten in both sessions. 

It’s a continuation of the form it showed last weekend with Gasly qualifying sixth and Tsunoda also making the top ten. 

Qualifying hasn’t been the issue for Gasly in particular in 2021, making Q3 in every race bar one. The Frenchman will likely be a serious contender for ‘best of the rest’ behind the top four but a clean race is what’s needed as the battle with Aston Martin for fifth in the constructors’ will be a close-run affair.

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Traffic causes a headache 

With 20 F1 cars driving around a 2.683-mile long venue, and with lap times close to 60 seconds, it’s no surprise that traffic was a recurring issue for drivers in practice. 

Even with over 300 grand prix starts to his name, Kimi Raikkonen was an offender in FP2, blocking Fernando Alonso at the final couple of corners.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t f---ing believe it. Shit. They don’t have mirrors these guys. Who was the guy?”

It also led to an amusing exchange between Verstappen and his race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase.

Verstappen came up behind a slow-moving Lando Norris into Turn 3. The Red Bull driver complained over team radio, saying: “I’m not even gonna say what the f--- happened.”

Lambiase replied: “What happened?”

Leading Verstappen to exclaim: “No, I’m not going to f---ing say! People are blind!”

The short nature of the track will always make traffic an issue but the positioning of the pit lane doesn’t help either.

Drivers and teams will have to be on their toes to avoid picking up a grid penalty.