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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: The signs Mercedes’ F1 recovery is real this time

by Mark Hughes
9 min read

In Miami two weeks ago when George Russell went fastest in Friday practice and Lewis Hamilton wasn’t far behind, they were somewhat mystified afterwards, feeling the Mercedes was no better than it had been up to that point. Their judgements proved accurate over the following two days.

This time around in Barcelona, with Russell and Hamilton second and third fastest respectively in the heavily revised Mercedes, their outlook was much more positive. There is genuinely a sense that Mercedes may be on the road to Formula 1 recovery.

Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari was comfortably fastest over a single lap and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was similarly superior in the long runs. But both Hamilton and Russell were competitive in both measures. Of more importance, genuine progress seemed to have been made with the car’s porpoising bugbear.

“It’s the first time we’ve driven down the straight without bouncing. We still have some bouncing but it’s way better,” said Hamilton. It was on the high speed Turns 3 and 9 that the ghost of a problem was apparent, but the updates do seem to have moved the range and conditions which trigger the phenomenon into a less limiting place.

“The car’s definitely reacting differently,” said Russell. “We don’t have the porpoising on the straight but we have it in some of the corners here and there which ultimately you need to dial out. Red Bull still look very, very strong. They look the team to be reckoned with at the moment. But I see no reason why tomorrow we can’t be as far away from the front as we showed today, if not even a little bit closer.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Spanish Grand Prix Practice Day Barcelona, Spain

Much improved though the Mercedes appears to be, the Red Bull looks a comfortable race favourite unless Ferrari can somehow imbue its car with better tyre usage between now and Sunday.

Verstappen did by far the most convincing long run, with a super-consistent and pretty long sequence on the medium tyres. In comparison – and just as on race days at both Imola and Miami – Leclerc could not maintain his single lap form into the race simulation.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Spanish Grand Prix Practice Day Barcelona, Spain

“The tyres are going to pieces,” he radioed in just eight laps into his run. Despite its floor and rear wing upgrades, the Ferrari pattern of performance – scintillating over a single lap but struggling a little with the rubber over a sequence of them – looked familiar.

Unfortunately for Russell, the Ferrari was circulating not far ahead of him and its tyre difficulties, therefore, had an impact on Russell’s average too. Hamilton’s run only really came to life after he’d passed Lance Stroll and Guanyu Zhou. From that moment, he was generally a match for Verstappen, but with the proviso that he’d probably given his tyres an easier time when running at the pace of the Aston and Alfa.

With its new floor, the W13 still needs fine-tuning into its sweet spot, but both drivers feel that’s perfectly feasible. “We’re not the quickest yet,” reflected Hamilton, “but I feel we’re on our way.”

The car was probably flattered a little on Friday by the regular engine mode sweep Mercedes uses as part of its preparation on Fridays, with both Red Bull and Ferrari believed to be on lower modes when they set their best times, which won’t of course be the case for the rest of the weekend. Nonetheless, Mercedes has real cause for optimism.

Tyre degradation on a track of around 45C was very high on either the soft C3 or the medium C2. Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and Sergio Perez’s Red Bull were very evenly matched on the soft tyre, but the medium turned out to be superior. The Hard C1 is not expected to be seen such is its pace deficit and its difficult warm-up traits. The value of a well-balanced car is set to be even greater than usual and it is in this that the Red Bull seems to have its greatest strength.

Long-run averages

Soft Medium
Verstappen 1m26.051s (12 laps)
Sainz 1m26.316s (8 laps)
Perez 1m26.398s (9 laps)
Hamilton 1m26.433s (8 laps)
Leclerc 1m26.531s (11 laps)
Russell 1m26.575s (9 laps)
Gasly 1m26.924s (7 laps)
Alonso 1m27.365s (10 laps)
Ocon 1m27.630s (11 laps)
Vettel 1m27.780s (6 laps)

The top three teams do seem to have moved themselves further away from the chasing pack here, although both McLaren and Alfa Romeo are under-represented in the numbers, as Lando Norris missed a big chunk of the session after damaging the car with a heavy hit of a kerb and Valtteri Bottas’s engine let go early in the session.

Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri actually set the best long-run average of the midfield group but he was dissatisfied with the car’s tyre usage.

In reality, Fernando Alonso’s Alpine was the most consistently quick of the group – and the controversially updated Aston Martin with its Red Bull-like bodywork looked significantly more competitive than the previous version. Sebastian Vettel was eighth fastest on single-lap pace and 10th in the long runs with plenty more to come, as the team begins to find out about the car’s traits.

Practice 2 Results

Pos Name Car Best Time Gap Leader
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1m19.67s
2 George Russell Mercedes 1m19.787s +0.117s
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m19.874s +0.204s
4 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1m19.99s +0.32s
5 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1m20.006s +0.336s
6 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault 1m20.203s +0.533s
7 Sergio Pérez Red Bull 1m20.632s +0.962s
8 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes 1m20.703s +1.033s
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1m20.745s +1.075s
10 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari 1m20.757s +1.087s
11 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Red Bull 1m20.917s +1.247s
12 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1m21.013s +1.343s
13 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1m21.249s +1.579s
14 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Red Bull 1m21.285s +1.615s
15 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes 1m21.385s +1.715s
16 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1m21.828s +2.158s
17 Guanyu Zhou Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1m21.866s +2.196s
18 Alex Albon Williams-Mercedes 1m22.319s +2.649s
19 Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes 1m23.197s +3.527s
20 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1m23.388s +3.718s
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