Mercedes dominated the free practice time sheets at Monza on Friday, but on hot and fiercely humid day, it was easy to see Ferrari prowl.
Instability seemed to be the word of the day for many drivers. For some, it was an issue cured as the day aged; for those with more sensitive machinery, there was little hope for sympathetic drivability.
Of course, those toward the front of the order enjoyed the best of things – that is not a shock – inherent stability and performance is often what gets a good team to the front whatever the whether.
And “whatever the weather” was a saying latched to the tongues of many in the paddock all through Friday. Through the build-up, the weather forecast looked – and felt – truly wretched.
Yet beyond a light sprinkling in the latter stages of FP1, the day remained very dry, as Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas explained. ‘It was nice that it stayed dry today. All the forecasts said that the rain could affect the running and we could have limited running before qualifying and the race in the dry. But we got our full plan done. In FP1 we were actually ahead of the plan because we were still worried about the weather.’
This was a story that was repeated up and down the paddock. Eventually it wasn’t until just after the final support series action of the day that the rain came, and it is only then that one is reminded that Monza rain can be ferocious.
The kind of downpour that belatedly arrived would have brought out red flags – especially in modern motorsport, where risk and peril is measured on a scale against court-ruled damages.
Meanwhile, back to Valtteri. Having set the fastest time of the day in FP2, the Finn was delighted that his weekend was back on track following a stumble in the opening session. ‘Initially in FP1 we went slightly in the wrong direction with the set-up, but we managed to change it around for FP2 and the car felt a lot better.’ Although this is only practice and that the real meat comes on Saturday and Sunday, Bottas is keen to avoid a repeat of Spa, where anonymity cast him adrift of teammate Lewis Hamilton and championship leader Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari).
Hamilton, meanwhile, was one of the few that enjoyed clean Friday running, so while he may have dropped to 2nd in FP2, Hamilton has been around long enough to know that this is only the small game. ‘It’s been a good day, a clean day,’ he said. ‘We got the running done, we got through our programme with no problems. The car seems nicely balanced here. We just have some work to do to eke out a little bit more performance.’ Like at Spa, the Briton knows rivals Ferrari are close, as the demons of Silverstone was washed away.
But Monza is not Spa or Silverstone. It’s ‘lonnnnnng straight; tight chicane; lonnnnnnng curving right-hander; tight chicane; short chute-fast right-short chute-fast right; lonnnnnnnng straight; fast chicane; lonnnnnnnng straight; lonnnnnnng curving right-hander; lonnnnnng straight’ format renders it a very different prospect to almost anything on the calendar today.
This will be, as is common in modern Formula One, the fastest race of the year.
Yet despite closing up on the Mercedes in FP2, Vettel was… unconvinced about Ferrari’s potential, with the German complaining of a lack of stability and balance in the low downforce SF70H machine. ‘Today has been a mixed day and I hope tomorrow is going to be better,’ Vettel said. ‘This afternoon for the first part of the session we mostly used Soft tires, but I am not entirely happy because we had a mixed run with a lot of traffic and the Virtual Safety Car period. Overall, we should have enough data to go through now. If we can improve a couple of things tomorrow, then it should be better.’
And Ferrari do need to be better. Whereas it is generally accepted that Ferrari have shown more muscle at medium-to-slower layouts, Mercedes have been the strongest on faster layouts like Monza, as Vettel admits. ‘Mercedes has been strong here during the last couple of years but we focus on ourselves. We try to improve the car because there’s still a little bit missing and then we’ll start from there.’
While it will be necessary to score high where one is strongest, this championship will likely be decided by a team’s performance at their weakest tracks.
A victory on merit for Vettel and Ferrari at Monza would not only extend his championship lead, but also strike a blow against Mercedes on a layout where they are perceived strongest.