Mercedes ahead of Red Bull at Imola, but are they favourites? The Friday F1 verdict from both teams
The view from both camps on whether Mercedes are now the team to beat for the Emilia-Romagna GP after a Friday practice one-two double, or if Red Bull still have the faster car; watch Imola weekend live on Sky Sports F1
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 17/04/21 12:11pm
Mercedes admit they are "definitely feeling better" heading into F1 2021's second weekend than they were in Bahrain after enjoying a near-perfect Friday at the Emilia-Romagna GP, topping both opening Imola sessions while also seeing major rivals Red Bull stutter.
However, with neither of F1's two leading teams keen to take on the 'favourites' tag for this weekend, Max Verstappen insisted Mercedes' pace was "no surprise" while the world champions remain adamant Red Bull have the faster car despite their disrupted practice.
Beaten in all three Bahrain practice and qualifying - before salvaging a race win - Mercedes could not have asked for a much more positive start to Round Two of 2021 as Valtteri Bottas led a team one-two ahead of Lewis Hamilton in both sessions, with Sky F1's Martin Brundle reporting a previously twitchy W12 looked like the "dominant Mercedes of old".
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"So much better than Bahrain," admitted team boss Toto Wolff to Sky F1. "The car seemed together this morning and in the afternoon. Probably the temperatures help a little bit because that is where we were suffering particularly in Bahrain. For Friday, I'm really happy to see that."
Bottas added: "If I compare with Bahrain how the car is feeling it's definitely feeling better. So that's nice.
"At least the week has started in a positive way and the car really wasn't far off in terms of the setup. There are still things to be tuned but overall I'm much happier with the balance than I was three weeks ago."
Hamilton, the seven-time champion and superb winner of the season-opener, was similarly optimistic.
"I think the team 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.
"But I think the track has also come a little bit more in our direction.
"We have started in a really good setup, just small tweaks here and there and no major issues. And so far good pace."
Are Mercedes really ahead of Red Bull?
But while a double Mercedes one-two may seem ominous for the rest of the field, there are certainly other factors at play.
For one, Red Bull hit issues in both Friday sessions at Imola, with Sergio Perez colliding with Esteban Ocon in P1 and Verstappen, the presumed main Mercedes threat, stopping his car with a reliability failure in P2.
That prevented Verstappen from setting a representative lap to contend with Bottas and Hamilton.
When Verstappen was on-track on Friday, he appeared to have similar pace to the Mercs - just six hundredths of a second off Bottas in first practice and certainly in the hunt.
"They have a quicker car and a quicker package and that is very easy to demonstrate," insisted Wolff. "We haven't seen Max today either on a quick lap in the afternoon."
Hamilton continued: "I don't think we've seen the best of the Red Bulls yet, it looks like they've had quite messy sessions. It'll be interesting to see tomorrow just how quick they are."
Mercedes were also not streaking away from the rest of the midfield. Ferrari were just 0.2s off the pace in P1, while AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly managed to lap within a tenth of Bottas in the afternoon.
"The midfield and the front of the grid looks really close," said Bottas, who said Mercedes were still struggling with the "same kind of issues" as in Bahrain, "but less so".
"We definitely didn't see the best out of Red Bull today, we're going to see that in q3 tomorrow.
"No doubt they're going to be fast and we still don't think we have the fastest car."
Red Bull reliability issues more worrying than pace?
Red Bull have been insistent throughout pre-season and indeed the first two race weekends that Mercedes - who claim to be the "hunters" and "on the back foot" - are quicker than they are letting on.
Verstappen issued a fitting response when asked about Merc's pace at Imola.
"No surprise," he said. "We just have to focus on ourselves to do a better job and we'll see how we end up compared to them."
The Dutchman added on his day: "It's been alright. It's of course difficult to say in the second session how we would have been but nothing shocking, so we just have to look into what we can do better for tomorrow in terms of balance."
More concerning for Red Bull may be their reliability, after Verstappen heard a "snap" in his car before the team confirmed a suspected broken driveshaft.
Verstappen will be aiming for a third consecutive F1 pole position in Saturday's qualifying but admitted: "First we have to make sure nothing breaks."
Plenty of Imola, and F1 2021, questions will be answered over the next two days.
Final practice takes place at 10am before qualifying at 1pm - all live on Sky Sports F1.