Tuscan GP Friday F1 talk: drivers falling for Mugello, Renault on the pace
With one positive COVID test, drivers drooling over Mugello, and Renault, Mercedes, and RBR on the pace, there were many talking points Friday.
Friday of the Tuscan GP weekend was an ordinary one, with Mercedes domination once again the headline, but it was nonetheless at an extraordinary location in Mugello, the unique high-speed playing host its first-ever F1 practice sessions.
Unusually, it was Valtteri Bottas leading the pair in both FP1 and FP2, albeit in the former session Lewis Hamilton of the team - one of only a few who had yet to drive the track prior to the green light in FP1 - worked to make himself familiar with the circuit, it being one that his teammate and many others of the grid thoroughly enjoyed.
"It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed every single lap," began Bottas, who projected that further lap time will be found after he and the F1 team eradicated an earlier problem with excessive oversteer. In his running, the Finn broke the track record, with his FP2-topping time of 1m16.989s.
"The whole opening section with the high-speed chicanes and the second sector is just amazing and the car felt pretty good out there. I struggled with quite a lot of understeer in the first session and still in places in the second session, but it felt better. I think there’s still quite a bit of lap time to unlock, both in the car and also as a F1 driver.
"This track is definitely one of the most physically demanding. We’ll only properly get to see the effects of that in the race distance, but even today, I could feel it and it’s going to be tough for everyone on Sunday. It’s also quite unforgiving, with little margin for error and that’s how it should be... [it is] one of the most physical tracks. No doubt about it. It's going to be a tough Sunday for everyone, but I am ready for it. It is good. With the race distance the fatigue will build up for everyone," he added.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was struck by the intesity of the track, known for being conducive to high G's. He contributed that his tyres were behaving, in stark contrast to the many who struggled to reign in tyre temperatures. "I have to say, this track is pretty intense – so fast and challenging, it’s amazing to experience," he said. "I love it.
"There’s no time to play around here and it’s one of the most physically demanding that I’ve driven for a while. I’ve been trying to push it to the limit, but I think there are a few sections where I can improve. I’ve got the last sector pretty sorted, but there’s definitely more to come in the first and second sectors as Valtteri and Max were very quick through there. So, we’ve got some changes that need to be made and studying to do.
"The tyres have felt quite strong and have been behaving well, but it’s going to be difficult to look after them through those fast sections, particularly through 6, 7, 8 and 9," he said, adding that he has not yet found the limit as his competitors have. "I mean, I'm trying to push it to the limit, but it's just I think there are sections like the last sector obviously I've got that sorted. The first and second sector are a little bit weak for me, particularly the first sector. So there's plenty to come from that section."
Ever at the forefront of the field, Max Verstappen was also in amongst the leaders on Friday, challenging the best in the form of Bottas in FP1, and finishing P3 in FP2. It appeared that the unique style of Mugello complimented his Red Bull RB16, and after the day's running the Dutchman stated that its flowing corners were suited to his style.
"We can be pretty pleased with how the car is behaving and I think it was a good first day at Mugello," said Verstappen. "We are not too far off Mercedes which is a good thing and also balance wise, there are always things that can be improved, but overall I was pretty pleased. This is a very cool track to drive in an F1 car with so many fast corners and to be able to take Arrabbiata 1 and 2 flat out easily is quite incredible and really enjoyable to drive.
"It is pretty physical and I felt alright but of course 59 laps in a row in the heat is not going to be easy. I like a bit of a challenge and we shouldn’t complain as we train hard to sit in these cars and we should just enjoy it. In terms of tyres, I expected it to be worse so let’s see how they hold up over the rest of the weekend. The track is my type of track - really flowing with no slow corners, so I'm looking forward to doing more laps."
One of many drivers to have had experience at the track in his F4 career, Alexander Albon, who came P9 and P4 in FP1 and FP2 respectively, raved about the track, appreciative of the marginal room for error and flowing nature. He added that they are happy with his car and much more positive, but that balance is still lacking in certain areas.
A self-proclaimed 'decent' day was enjoyed, meanwhile, at Renault, who were disappointed with their showing at Monza after a promising round at Spa. Early in the day, Esteban Ocon set the pace in the team, but once the times dropped, and the sun passed its noon position, the roles flipped, with Daniel Ricciardo ultimately coming P5 in FP2, the Australian later explaining that some issues that plagued morning were soon resolved.
“It’s so good to drive at Mugello," said Ricciardo. "On one lap it’s fun but even on the long runs, which are normally a lot slower, there’s no holding back as it’s all high-speed. Turns 8 and 9 are nearly flat out on high fuel, so it’s quick and keeps you on your toes. I felt we picked it up today quite well. There were a couple of things to improve on in the morning, but we managed that well into the afternoon session.
"It looks like both cars are in decent shape. The timesheets look okay and, if we put ourselves in that position in qualifying, we’d be very happy," Ricciardo said, Ocon only adding later that there is pace still to be unlocked for Saturday's Qualifying.
Firmly in the mid-field, by comparison, was marooned a maroon Ferrari SF1000, as incredible pace from Charles Leclerc in FP1 - enough to secure him P3 then - proved a cause for false hope among the Tifosi, who were in attendance in limited numbers, when he only managed P10 in FP2. And, having recently signed for Racing Point, Sebastian Vettel managed no better.
Leclerc spun in FP1, a victim of the tracks unforgiving nature. He, however, was still glowing about the track at the day's end as he admitted that filming day helped them to prepare better. "Driving an F1 car around this circuit is unbelievable," he said. "In all the fast sections it’s pretty impressive. I think it’s going to be quite a tough race, physically, as already in the long run we’ve done in FP2 the neck starts to feel it! The lack of run-off areas will also make it difficult, but I guess this is what we like as well.
"To be honest, [the FP1 pace] was a bit of a surprise for everyone. I have my personal opinion, we probably have done a filming day which helped us to get in a rhythm of the track, as for all the other drivers, it was a new track. So maybe this helped us a little bit. But in FP2 it was more where we expected to be. But I believe that it’s all very close, and I believe that we can do a step, a positive step forward. I have some optimism," he said, while on the opposing side of the garage, Vettel added that he was still uncomfortable with the car's balance.
For McLaren, the day was a difficult one. Not only was their pace lacking quite severely, but in the fleeting moments it was there, the team failed to capitalize on it, Lando Norris' high-speed off being one thing that seriously hampered their efforts. The Brit hit the barrier at speed, but the angle of approach was such that damage would only be minor, as he clipped his front nose on the concrete lining the very outside of the F1 track.
The impact, however tame in appearance, rattled Norris, and despite it costing him precious track time in the early stages of FP2, the 20-year-old driver maintained his belief that gravel traps are the best way of penalizing off-track excursions. "As much as I hate [that] there was gravel [there], because I ended up crashing and damaging the car, it’s better like this, and I think it’s more tricky, but it’s more challenging, and I think that’s what it should be like," he said. "Not ideal, but it’s what happens sometimes.
"It felt a lot worse when I was in the car than what it looks like. I think there is some damage a bit to the steering and maybe the rear, but nothing major luckily. I don’t think I damaged too much the floor or the wings, apart from the front wing obviously. It’s not terrible, it could have been worse, so I’m lucky.
"But it was a small mistake from my side which was quite costly, cost me all of the high-fuel running in FP2. But it is what it is, and I need to try and make up for it," he explained, before touching on the day as a whole. Of the same team, Carlos Sainz added: “It’s been a challenging Friday. We haven’t quite managed to get the car in the sweet-spot and we’ve spent the whole day trying things and trying to achieve a better balance.
"At the moment we’re struggling quite a lot with the changes of direction at the rear and being able to lean on it."
At Alpha Tauri, reviews of Friday were mixed between the two drivers, with Pierre Gasly labelling it a 'strong day' for the team, during which he wasn't quite comfortable in the car as Daniil Kvyat added that he has room for improvement.
Racing Point's Sergio Perez became involved in two incidents of note, one with Romain Grosjean, as he blocked the apex for the Haas driver in FP1. Another incident saw him get hit with a one-place grid-drop, when he left the pit lane and clipped the rear of Kimi Raikkonen in FP2.
Regardless of the scrappy session, the Mexican said the car was feeling good, explaining that their mediocre pace was born out of race programmes. Teammate Lance Stroll sported an all-new ultra-sculpted side pod, and the Canadian explained that he was satisfied with his productivity on the day. He also looked to Qualifying with confidence and anticipation.
Having spent his day - as he has all Fridays of the 2020 F1 season - with Alfa Romeo, Raikkonen spoke on some of the difficulties associated with going to a new circuit, among them the challenges of finding a truly good set-up, his being one that he says still needs fine-tuning as in contrast, Antonio Giovinazzi left Mugello in a good place, excited by a particularly strong set-up.
For Haas, both drivers Magnussen and Grosjean were happy with their set up, with the latter a strong believer in what could have been of his session had an issue not brought an early end to it. The former was slightly less optimistic, but nonetheless happy with a fun day. Williams' George Russell complained of heavy tyre wear, but was otherwise happy with his set-up, while Nicholas Latifi explained that his early tyre troubles were resolved by the afternoon.
Aside from the on-track activities, the FIA also shared the latest details on COVID-19 testing from September 4 and September 10, where 5,589 test were done, out of which one returned positive. It is unclear who it is as it makes it eighth so far since 2020 start, which includes Perez.
[This story was written by me for FormulaRapida and edited by Darshan Chokhani]