Friday analysis: Red Bull dominant, Ferrari fifth-fastest?

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Ferrari may find themselves embroiled in a fight for second place in the constructors’ championship, but the Italian marque appear to be as far back as the fifth-fastest team in Abu Dhabi after the second practice session on Friday.

In terms of qualifying pace, this appears to be a fair estimate. The second session saw the teams complete their qualifying simulations using low fuel and option tires with Red Bull romping to a one-two finish. Fernando Alonso was the leading Ferrari down in eighth place whilst Felipe Massa could only finish P10. These may seem to be poor results, but it was in fact a marked improvement on eleventh (Alonso) and seventeenth (Massa) in the first session on Friday afternoon.

The second half of FP2 saw the teams complete their race simulations, which is where Ferrari usually improve and show signs of pace that can typically secure them at least one podium finish. However, in Abu Dhabi, it appears to be a very different story when we crunch the numbers.

Let’s start with Sebastian Vettel, the fastest man. He completed two substantial runs on the option tire of six and eight laps respectively, with his fastest time in these runs being 1:46.103. During both runs, his laps only left the 1:46.XXX region on one occasion, and both drops in time signalled that it was time to pit as the tires had been pushed far enough. Mark Webber was also impressive, but his times largely dotted around in the 1:47s.

Mercedes also stayed in the 1:47s for their runs, with Lewis Hamilton’s mammoth sixteen run stint producing a best time of 1:47.090 whilst Nico Rosberg dotted into the high-1:46s during the final part of his run on fourteen-lap-old tires. Similarly, Lotus’ times were largely in the 1:47s for Kimi Raikkonen, but Romain Grosjean suffered a broken brake disc and was limited to just eighteen laps.

The surprise package of practice was McLaren, though – or, more specifically, the under-fire Sergio Perez. The Mexican driver also stayed within the 1:47s for the bulk of his run, with his fastest time being 1:47.299, suggesting that McLaren have made a step forward in Abu Dhabi. Similarly, Jenson Button was consistent with his pace, although he could dip into the 1:47 region just once during his longest run of ten laps.

For Ferrari though, it was a difficult session. Fernando Alonso’s longest run with sixteen laps, but he failed to sustain a pace anything like that of Mercedes or Red Bull, averaging in the mid-to-low 1:48s. Felipe Massa’s runs were shorter and slightly quicker, but again, not a scratch on that of McLaren.

However, practice is exactly that: practice. An awful lot can change between Friday night and Saturday’s qualifying session, meaning that it would be foolish to rule Ferrari out just yet. Nevertheless, the early signs are that this is a race Red Bull will run away with and McLaren will return to form at.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.