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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: The real Imola favourite amid Red Bull's struggles

by Mark Hughes
3 min read

Red Bull and Max Verstappen struggled through Friday practice for Formula 1’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, no two ways about it.

Yes, it appears from the GPS that Red Bull was running in lower power modes than the others. But that doesn’t explain all of it.

Verstappen was off the track three times in total, as he pushed without the front end he’s used to from the RB20. That was on the medium tyre in FP1.

With some set-up changes for FP2, he was much happier on that tyre – but to his dismay as soon as he put on the faster soft tyre, “the front grips up and I nearly spin,” as he phrased it to his engineer over the radio.

So he was 0.5s off the pace of Charles Leclerc’s session-heading Ferrari and only just barely faster than team-mate Sergio Perez.  

Read beneath the surface and McLaren was conclusively fastest. The lap Lando Norris abandoned at Rivazza 1 was set to be 0.25s faster than Leclerc’s.

Then onto the long runs McLaren was perhaps even more impressive. Oscar Piastri was second in the qualifying simulations, 0.1s behind Leclerc, but fastest of all in the long runs. The hard tyre on which he did his 10 laps probably flattered that picture slightly, but on the medium tyre Norris did a remarkable 15-lap run which looked uncannily like his race stint in Miami in its speed and long duration.

Long run averages




1m20.53s (10 laps)


1m20.73s (9 laps)


1m20.83s (15 laps)


1m20.89s (6 laps)


1m20.97s (6 laps)


1m21.13s (8 laps)


1m21.15s (9 laps)


1m21.34s (6 laps)


1m21.46s (8 laps)

On the same medium tyre, his average was only 0.1s adrift of Leclerc’s despite being six laps longer. It was probably the most impressive long run anyone made around a track featuring the sort of fast corners the McLaren likes

When running with DRS in the qualifying sim, the McLaren’s straightline running was fully competitive with Red Bull’s – but in non-DRS running during the race sims the McLaren actually pulls out significant lap time on both the Red Bull and the Ferrari. 

Partly that’s down to the Red Bull’s engine mode but it also suggests good things about the aero efficiency of the McLaren upgrade introduced in Miami. 

Even though the Pirelli tyre choice is a step softer than last time this race was held, in 2022, the C3 hard and the C4 medium look fully capable of proving the necessary duration to do the favoured one-stop. This is invariably the fastest strategy here because of the unusually long pitstop loss. 

Leclerc in the heavily upgraded Ferrari looks super-competitive on paper, but he’s more comfortable with its lively balance than appears to be the case for team-mate Carlos Sainz - who was down with the Red Bulls in both qualifying sim and long run.

“We experimented with a couple of set-up things in FP2,” explained Sainz. “In FP1 I was very happy in the car, but the experiments took us a bit in the wrong direction. We’ll go back more to how it was in FP1 for tomorrow.”

Conversely, Leclerc reported: “The feeling in the car is good. The upgrades are working as expected.”

By the standards of its 2024 season to date, Mercedes had an encouraging Friday, 

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were a respective fourth and fifth fastest in the headline times, ahead of Red Bull but around 0.4s adrift of Leclerc and Piastri.

Yuki Tsunoda was flying in low-fuel running, setting third-fastest time of the session in the RB, but it’s perhaps flattered by a lighter base fuel weight than the top teams. 

In the long runs on the medium tyre his pace fell away quite quickly, with an average well off those of any of the top five team cars. 

There’s a lot for Red Bull to understand overnight as it seeks to find the sweet spot of its car, which is also running a significant aero update.

But with McLaren and Ferrari having made very real gains with their own updates, will that be enough or is Verstappen really going to be fighting in the pack?

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