Mercedes believes it has taken a step forward at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, while top rival Red Bull Racing suffered a setback as Max Verstappen was stopped by a driveshaft issue on Friday.
Valtteri Bottas set the pace in both practice sessions, edging out teammate Lewis Hamilton by less than 0.05s in each of FP1 and FP2. The Finn says the car feels more competitive in Imola, something he is attributing to the starting setup on a new circuit.
“To be honest, starting this weekend, if I compare it with Bahrain and how the car is feeling, it’s definitely better, so that’s nice,” Bottas said. “It’s a different kind of track, a different type of circuit and surface and grip level, but at least the weekend started in a positive way and the car really wasn’t far off in terms of setup. There are still things to be tuned but, overall, the balance is good. I’m a lot happier with the car now than three weeks ago.
“It feels better — still the same type of issues but less so. It’s still not perfect but we’re only on event two out of 23 this season, so, hopefully, we’ll have enough time to fix it. But, at least, we can really feel we’ve made steps forward.”
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Bahrain Grand Prix winner Hamilton believes the encouraging start from a Mercedes point of view is down to a combination of car improvements and the different track conditions.
“I think a bit of both,” Hamilton said. “I think the team has definitely worked really hard to try and understand what happened in the last race where we were weak and see if we can try and tweak the car a little bit better with setup. I think the track has also come a little bit more in our direction.
“We started off with a really good setup — small tweaks here and there but no major issues, and so far good pace for us.
“It’s quite bumpy here, but good grip and the tires are working really well here. I don’t think we’ve seen the best from the Red Bulls yet — it looks like they had quite messy sessions — so it will be interesting to see tomorrow just how quick they are.”
The one caveat is the lack of pace shown by Red Bull, with Verstappen within 0.1s in FP1 but hampered by being forced to stop after just four laps of the second session.
“I had a driveshaft issue so I had to stop the car,” Verstappen said. “It’s been all right. Of course it’s a bit difficult to say now for the second session, how we would have been. But nothing shocking, so we just need to see what we can do better tomorrow in terms of balance. Of course, first we have to make sure that nothing breaks…
“Yeah (Mercedes is fast) but no surprise, so we just have to focus on ourselves to do a better job and then we’ll see where we will end up compared to them.”