Valtteri Bottas topped the timesheets for both free practice sessions - FP1 and FP2 - at the Imola GP on Friday. Red Bull Racing's pace was clouded by a poor run in the second session, Ferrari were the second-quickest team and AlphaTauri looked strong in race trim.
Analyzing the qualifying simulations of both practice sessions, or calculating the one-lap pace of the teams, the pecking order was led by Mercedes, followed by Red Bull Racing and Ferrari. However, there is a possibility that AlphaTauri could also slot in between their sister team and the Maranello squad.
According to Pirelli's tire data, the top 3 drivers clocked their quickest laps on a fresh set of soft (C4) compounds in the opening session. In second practice, however, the Bottas' quickest lap was set on a medium (C3) compound, and when teammate Lewis Hamilton tried to match it on the soft compound, the Briton's best effort left him 0.010 seconds adrift.
Hamilton was followed by AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, who clocked the third-quickest time on the same compound. The top 3 drivers of the second practice session used fresh tires for their qualifying simulation laps.
In FP1, Ferrari's Carlos Sainz was quickest on the hard compound, with a time of 1 minute 17.296 seconds, while Williams' Nicholas Latifi led the medium-tire runners, clocking in at 1 minute 18.974 seconds.
In FP2, Hamilton posted the fastest lap on the soft compound, at 1 minute 15.561 seconds, while Latifi was quickest on the hards.
How do the teams stack up in race pace?
While some teams carried out race simulations during the first practice session, most attempted their race runs during the second half of FP2. These simulations provide useful indicators about each driver's race pace on different tire compounds, and can be a derivative of the pecking order for Sunday.
Averaging the times over four laps on each compound, here's how five of the six drivers fared:
Bottas and Hamilton conducted most of their long runs on the medium compound. Sainz posted laps on the soft tire, while Leclerc attempted his long runs on the soft and medium compounds.
Mercedes competitive in Friday practice but mixed results for Red Bull
Max Verstappen’s practice session was thwarted by a software issue and he was unable to get enough running in race trim, leaving Red Bull Racing with Sergio Perez's medium tire compound data as the only reference for race performance.
On the soft tire, Leclerc’s laptime average over four laps was 1 minute 19.623 seconds, compared to Sainz's average of 1 minute 19.832 seconds, giving the Monegasque driver an early edge in race pace.
On the medium tire, Leclerc’s average over four laps was the quickest, clocked at 1 minute 19.128 seconds. Bottas was second (1 minute 19. 759 seconds), Perez third (1 minute 19.717 seconds), and Hamilton fourth (1 minute 19.759 seconds).
Outside the top 3 teams, Gasly’s average over four laps on the soft tire was 1 minute 19.964 seconds. The Frenchman also ran the medium compound, where his average laptime over three laps was 1 minute 19.564 seconds.
Working the tires up to their optimum temperature window proved difficult in the cold weather prevalent during both practice sessions. With that in mind, it's important to note that while Mercedes look quick on the medium compound in qualifying trim, Ferrari could be quicker still on the same compound in race trim.
With only one Red Bull driver’s practice data providing a representation of their long run potential, they should slot in second and fourth places in terms of race pace on the medium compounds. Since Perez did not attempt any race simulations on the soft compound, it is unclear where they fit in the pecking order.
Both AlphaTauri drivers looked quick in terms of race pace and were able to put decent mileage on their cars with heavier fuel loads. However, they might have to fight it out with the Ferraris, who looked smooth around the tricky Italian circuit.
Early indications for 2021 Imola GP pole and race winner
Given the data from both practice sessions, the pole will be decided by a fight between the two Mercedes drivers and Red Bull Racing’s Verstappen, with Ferrari and AlphaTauri possibly figuring into the mix as well.
In the race, since the two DRS zones on the circuit have been extended, there could be a little more overtaking. However, based on simulated race pace, should Red Bull Racing fail to outsmart Mercedes' strategy, they could get jumped in the pits by their own junior team or even Ferrari. The laptime averages certainly indicate that it could be a close battle between the top 6 in the race.