We might fortunately get used to this. For the third race weekend this season, it seems like an in depth battle is brewing between Mercedes and Red Bull.
A well-known theme developed from Friday observe, with little or no to choose between the highest two groups on each single-lap tempo and lengthy runs.
If something, Mercedes could maintain the sting over a single lap and Red Bull over a race distance, however a lot will depend upon how every driver is ready to handle the interplay between their tyres and Portimao’s easy observe floor.
Pirelli has introduced its three hardest tyre compounds to Portugal, and because of this, constructing and retaining tyre temperature is a key consider efficiency.
It was the identical story at this circuit final yr, when a newly-laid observe floor had drivers scrambling for grip whereas their tyres got here as much as temperature.
A yr’s weathering has given Portimao’s floor a bit extra chew, however setting a fast lap time nonetheless requires good tyre preparation.
“It’s very similar [to last year],” Max Verstappen mentioned after getting out of his Red Bull on Friday afternoon. “Of course the tyres have changed and of course we’ve lost a bit of grip from the car [due to regulation changes] compared to last year, but it’s very tricky out there and it’s a shame.
“It’s all about tyre prep, tyre temperature, and it should not be like that.
“But, of course, it’s the same for everyone.”
Lewis Hamilton ended up with the quickest lap of the day, a 1:19.837, and unusually it got here on his third lap out of the pits relatively than his second — highlighting how troublesome it’s to realize the appropriate tyre temperature on a single outlap.
He ended up 0.143s quicker than Verstappen and 0.344s quicker than Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.
A comparability between the laps of Hamilton and Verstappen exhibits Red Bull gaining in high-speed corners, resembling Turn 1 the place Verstappen carried almost 10km/h extra apex velocity, whereas Hamilton recovered time within the slow-speed corners, resembling Turn 3 and Turn 5 the place he had a 5km/h benefit.
Both groups will look to refine their setups to handle their relative weaknesses forward of qualifying, whereas guaranteeing they maintain or lengthen their strengths.
Once again, the midfield drivers had been in contact with the highest two groups throughout Friday observe, however based mostly on what we have seen at the primary two races, that hole will possible lengthen in qualifying.
Red Bull and Mercedes took completely different approaches to their lengthy runs at the top of Friday’s second observe session, with Mercedes splitting its drivers’ time between the tender and medium tyres whereas Red Bull targeted solely on the medium.
From the small amount of laps we noticed, it seems as if the medium compound was a greater race tyre than the tender, so anticipate to see the highest drivers try to make it by the second session of qualifying on the medium tyre to be able to begin the race on that compound.
Bottas had the perfect long-run tempo on the medium tyres, with a mean lap time of 1:23.062 over six laps.
Hamilton’s common lap time on the medium compound was a comparatively disappointing 1:23.802 over eight laps, whereas Verstappen accomplished a wholesome ten laps on the medium with a mean of 1:23.116.
“I think in terms of pace it wasn’t a bad start,” Bottas mentioned. “It’s good to see we’re there or thereabouts although, again, it’s going to be close, no doubt.
“I received a fairly comparable feeling to final yr. It’s nonetheless a fairly slippery tarmac and particularly the rear of the automotive is fairly free in some locations, so it wasn’t the simplest of days.
“It’s not easy to get clean laps, and for me, personally, the softer we went with the compounds, the trickier the car became.
“So I believe the medium tyre is the perfect working tyre up to now, however there’s nonetheless work to do.”
Both Mercedes cars picked up aerodynamic damage during their long runs, but it was clear Hamilton was the less happy of the two.
“It’s troublesome to say whether or not or not it is the automotive or it is the wind or the observe, however it’s undoubtedly been an actual problem at present to maintain the automotive on observe,” the world champion said.
“We got here right here final yr and the tyres had been too exhausting, and we have come right here again and the identical tyre, so it is just about… the truth is they’re more durable this yr, so it seems like we have include too exhausting a compound in my view.”
Verstappen’s solid pace, more or less matching Bottas despite completing more laps on the medium compound, hints at his potential in the race and just how close the battle could be between Mercedes and Red Bull.
“I believe it is going to be an in depth run; it seems like we’re shut [with Red Bull],” Hamilton added.
“I do not know the way Max’s [fastest] lap was however mine wasn’t good. We’ve undoubtedly received a while to return from the automotive and a few enhancements to make, however I’m certain they’ve too.
“But it’s close, as it has been the last couple of races, so it’s exciting.”
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez can be eager to affix the battle after a scrappy run on low gas noticed him set his quickest time, a 1:20.516, on his fifth lap out of the pits and find yourself tenth quickest general.
However, his future on medium tyres appeared extra aggressive, inserting him in between Verstappen and Hamilton with a mean lap time of 1:23.455 over eight laps on the mediums.
“I think we have pretty good pace so definitely we should be in the mix tomorrow to fight for pole,” Perez mentioned after the session.
Has Alpine made progress?
The presence of each Alpine drivers within the prime six on Friday got here as a shock after the struggles of the French workforce at the primary two races.
Alpine, the renamed Renault workforce from final yr, seems to have slipped backwards relative to its rivals this yr, which the workforce’s managing director, Marcin Budkowski, places all the way down to points within the wind tunnel over the winter that prevented it profiting from its growth time.
“Unfortunately it’s not completely a surprise because we had a few issues over the winter that we knew would affect our performance and of course we went to the Bahrain test and our fears were true,” he mentioned. “So we knew we were on the back foot going into testing and then going into the first races.
“We are working exhausting on attempting to enhance the automotive. We introduced some developments to Imola, we now have performed some extra testing this morning, so we’re making small steps by way of bettering the efficiency of the automotive.
“But the gap to the guys we’d like to fight with, the McLarens and the Ferraris, is a bit too much at the moment, so we are still working to close it, but it will be tricky to do that in the next few races.”
An indication of progress got here on Friday afternoon as two-time world champion Fernando Alonso completed the day fifth quickest, 0.023s off Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in fourth place, and simply 0.383s off Hamilton in first place.
But, if something, Alpine’s look within the prime six exhibits simply how shut the midfield is that this season and the way necessary it was to get the tyres connected for a fast lap of Portimao on Friday.
“It was good, I think we were happy with the car today,” Alonso mentioned. “Obviously it’s only Friday but we were comfortable from lap one and we didn’t touch the set-up much because everything felt reasonably OK.
“We tried to do some laps simply for me to get used to the observe and to know slightly bit extra in regards to the tyres.
“The asphalt seems a little bit different compared to last year, so we had to review a little bit of the data we had from the tyres. Generally a happy Friday but still more to come tomorrow.”
Just 0.361 separated Sainz in fourth place and the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly in eleventh, with virtually each driver in between telling a narrative of a wind-affected lap or tyre temperature points.
Looking to the lengthy runs for a extra dependable kind information, it seems as if Ferrari and McLaren are intently matched at the entrance of the midfield with Alpine simply behind.
Nevertheless, that will nonetheless signify progress for Alpine, which appeared just like the fifth-fastest workforce, slotting in forward of AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, Williams, Alfa Romeo and a distant Haas workforce.