While Mercedes struggled in Bahrain with an unstable rear and a lack of downforce, their improved performance in the practice sessions projects a different picture for the Imola Grand Prix weekend. Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin debriefed the practice sessions and discussed the team's odds against Red Bull.
Bottas admitted to carrying out simulator work and trying multiple setups over the three-week hiatus. The work seems to have helped, as the Finn topped the timesheets for both practice sessions.
During the initial half of FP1, Bottas was seen trying various setups. Speaking about his day at the iconic Italian circuit, he said:
“The car feels better, we still have the same type of issues as in Bahrain but less so. Still not perfect but we are only on event two out of 23 this season so hopefully we have time to fix it. I feel like we've made steps forward so that's really good.”
Trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin explained the areas where Mercedes found their pace:
“We brought a few aerodynamic updates here and our early work today confirmed that they were performing correctly. The car has also had a reasonable balance from the start which has made working through the program relatively easy.”
Mercedes' rear instability issue has been temporarily fixed. The Silver Arrows made up the rest of their deficit to Red Bull using their superior power deployment on the straights at the Imola circuit.
However, their immediate championship rivals had a scrappy run during practice, which hasn't helped the Silver Arrows gage Red Bull's true pace.
Lewis Hamilton spoke about the difficulties in judging Red Bull's program:
"“We haven't seen the best from the Red Bulls yet. It looks like they had messy sessions with traffic but it will be interesting to see just how quick they are tomorrow.”
Mercedes are faster, but Red Bull haven't revealed true pace
Speaking of where Mercedes stack up against Red Bull, Shovlin said:
“We also can't say where we stand in terms of pace as we've not seen Verstappen on a single lap or long run but both drivers are reasonably happy with how the car is working and the issues we need to solve are all within the realms of normal setup tuning.”
According to Bottas, "The whole grid from midfield to the front looks very close," which is one of the key takeaways from the practice session. If the race simulation lap time data of FP2 is evaluated, the predictions are mixed.
Due to the nature of the Imola circuit, track positioning will play a key role in the race. This makes Saturday's qualifying session extremely important.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said:
"Positioning is important here - it's hard to follow around this track so nailing the set-up and maximising tomorrow is going to be so important."
When it comes to tire performance, cold weather can be harsh. It becomes difficult to optimize them in the correct window to generate grip.
According to the race-trim lap times of both Mercedes cars, the W12 looks good on the Medium (C3) tire compound. However, they could struggle on the Soft (C4) compound compared to their rivals.
Mercedes' progress this weekend might yield results, however, their advantage might be small once Red Bull reveal the true pace of their car around the circuit. Ideally, it will be a close fight between Mercedes and their direct rivals in qualifying. However, in the race, one cannot rule out adding AlphaTauri and Ferrari to the mix.
Also read: 2021 Imola Grand Prix Preview: Mercedes