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Special feature
Formula 1 Emilia Romagna GP

What we learned in Friday practice for the 2024 F1 Imola Grand Prix

Formula 1’s return to Europe meant the customary heavy raft of upgrades on show up and down the pitlane during Friday practice. But these, plus some tricky track characteristics, point towards Red Bull being on the backfoot and a fight between Ferrari and McLaren for which team can grab the spotlight at this year’s Imola Grand Prix

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

After the opening series of pan-continental flyaway rounds, the Formula 1 circus returned to its European heartland and descended upon Imola. One of F1's returning classics after a lengthy spell away, the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari took a rather popular step back in time. The scourge of vast and forgiving run-off had largely been eradicated by the welcome sight of grass and gravel, which had sprouted in F1's two-year hiatus from the venue; last year's flooding in the Emilia Romagna region had prompted the cancellation of the 2023 event.

As is customary for the start of the European season, there were also plenty of upgrades that the teams wished to explore - the logistical hurdles much less reduced. The first 'conventional' weekend format since the Japanese Grand Prix meant that upgrades could be tested back-to-back in FP1 and their impact dissected for FP2.

So, how's everybody looking? A Red Bull rampage looks slightly less inevitable at this stage, and instead the Friday running was headlined by home favourites Ferrari - with Miami victors McLaren not far behind in the pecking order. As ever, there's more to the Friday practice cut-and-thrust than just the timesheets. Let's dig into the numbers and the data that emerged from the first two weekend sessions.

The story of the day

Charles Leclerc enthralled the tifosi in attendance with a Friday practice clean sweep, topping both sessions to complete an impressive day for Ferrari. The Monegasque headlined a red flag-interrupted FP1 with a 1m16.990s, a tenth faster than Mercedes' George Russell in the first of the two afternoon sessions.

The session had been paused by Alex Albon's Williams shutting down after a hefty kerb strike at Acque Minerali, an electrical issue causing him to park up on the grass just after the corner exit. Leclerc's headliner came shortly after green flag running resumed on soft tyres, while Russell nudged ahead of Carlos Sainz by a scant 0.026s.

A 1m15.906s placed Leclerc at the pinnacle of FP2's ultimate order as Ferrari appeared to get into a competitive cadence from the start of the weekend. He had already sat atop the order on the early medium-tyre runs, a whisker ahead of Max Verstappen, but a gap began to appear between the Ferrari and Red Bull drivers when it came to the C5 running. Once the mid-session soft tyre runs began, Leclerc set the pace with a 1m15.969s lap and, on another run, escalated his pace after finding another 0.063s. This time Oscar Piastri settled into second place, just under two tenths shy of Leclerc.

Leclerc and many others flirted with the gravel traps across the Friday practice sessions

Leclerc and many others flirted with the gravel traps across the Friday practice sessions

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

   
1
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4
   
   
1
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2
   
Cla Driver # Chassis Engine Laps Time Interval km/h
1 Monaco C. Leclerc Ferrari 16 Ferrari Ferrari 29

1'15.906

  232.819
2 Australia O. Piastri McLaren 81 McLaren Mercedes 30

+0.192

1'16.098

0.192 232.232
3 Japan Y. Tsunoda RB 22 RB Red Bull 32

+0.380

1'16.286

0.188 231.659
4 United Kingdom L. Hamilton Mercedes 44 Mercedes Mercedes 29

+0.391

1'16.297

0.011 231.626
5 United Kingdom G. Russell Mercedes 63 Mercedes Mercedes 32

+0.405

1'16.311

0.014 231.583
6 Spain C. Sainz Ferrari 55 Ferrari Ferrari 30

+0.517

1'16.423

0.112 231.244
7 Netherlands M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing 1 Red Bull Red Bull 23

+0.541

1'16.447

0.024 231.171
8 Mexico S. Perez Red Bull Racing 11 Red Bull Red Bull 25

+0.646

1'16.552

0.105 230.854
9 Germany N. Hulkenberg Haas F1 Team 27 Haas Ferrari 28

+0.920

1'16.826

0.274 230.031
10 Spain F. Alonso Aston Martin Racing 14 Aston Martin Mercedes 29

+0.932

1'16.838

0.012 229.995

But the two would have likely been overshadowed by Miami winner Lando Norris, had the Briton completed his sole flyer on the softs; according to GPS data, Norris was tracking at over half-a-second faster than Leclerc's benchmark before overcooking it completely at Rivazza. Too much kerb midway through the double left-hander preceded a brush with the gravel on the exit, prompting a hasty retreat to the pits.

Verstappen, meanwhile, could do no better than fifth and seventh in the two Friday practice sessions. The championship leader appeared to spend more time in the gravel than out of it, having struggled with inconsistent balance throughout the sessions and unable to dial himself into the demands of the tight and undulating Imola course.

Jock Clear revealed Ferrari's upgrades aimed at "tilting the map" of the car's performance: in other words, enhancing its performance in areas where the SF-24 is weaker - lower-speed corners - while retaining its prowess in the higher-speed areas

The nature of the circuit also produced much in the way of traffic, and thus the lap times must be taken with a pinch of salt - but it's inevitable that impeding calls will play a part in qualifying regardless of run-plans on Saturday afternoon.

Ferrari leads the line with new upgrades

A roar carried through the crowds like an audible Mexican wave as a Ferrari drove past the stands into Acque Minerali. It didn't matter if it was Leclerc or Sainz that had entered into view: the simple presence of red induced an almost Pavlovian reaction from the fans.

The Prancing Horse had pinned its hopes on a vast new upgrade package for Imola, one that it had given cursory mileage in a Fiorano filming day. Overbite sidepod inlets were the main visual hallmark for those wishing to draw comparisons to Red Bull, but this was supplemented by changes to the front and rear wings, engine cover bodywork, and the floor and diffuser. The team's senior performance engineer Jock Clear revealed on Friday that these were aimed at "tilting the map" of the car's performance: in other words, enhancing its performance in areas where the SF-24 is weaker - lower-speed corners - while retaining its prowess in the higher-speed areas.

No prizes for guessing who the home favourites are at Imola

No prizes for guessing who the home favourites are at Imola

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Imola's corner profiles tend towards the slow-medium end of the spectrum, so it's a perfect venue to determine whether the updates had worked at the 'bottom-end' of performance. Exploring the GPS data, Leclerc appeared to carry more speed into the tight Tosa corner compared to both Verstappen and Norris, although Piastri briefly gained time over the Ferrari thanks to staying on the throttle a touch later. That said, Leclerc found time on the exit of the corner and the run to Piratella, as Piastri only picked up the throttle again when Leclerc was at about 50% on the pedal.

Leclerc carried some throttle through Acque Minerali and the Variante Alta chicanes, ensuring the Ferrari could keep the revs up in fourth gear across both corners; Piastri dropped to third in both by swapping the throttle in its entirety for the brake pedal to maintain the engine speed.

Comparing Leclerc's best lap in FP2 to that his team-mate Sainz, it appears that the Monegasque trails slightly during the cornering phases around the lap, but he has traded this for stronger exits - although Sainz was unable to collect a clean second flying lap to truly indicate Ferrari's pace.

McLaren's outright pace masked by Norris off

Had Norris not dipped a wheel at the exit of Rivazza, he might have hurled his McLaren to the top of the charts in FP2. The Briton carried more speed over the straights compared to Leclerc's Ferrari, and was over 0.4s up on what would be the fastest lap when he'd stepped on the anchors for the final corner. He arguably carried too much speed into the corner, his delta now up by 0.7s over Leclerc in the transition between the two left-handers, but this carried him wide and prompted him to abort his lap.

The McLaren clearly has competitive one-lap pace, but it's the long run pace that counts. Norris' misstep was quickly turned around by the team, and it sent him on his way for a 15-lap long run on the medium. Although Ferrari appears ahead of McLaren in the overall average pace table (below), there are a number of key areas that suggests McLaren could factor ahead of the Italian squad.

Average FP2 medium tyre runs

Position Team Driver Average lap time Number of laps
1 Ferrari Leclerc 1m20.736s 12
2 McLaren Norris 1m20.836s 15
3 Red Bull Perez 1m21.025s 8
4 Aston Martin Alonso 1m21.601s 11
5 RB Tsunoda 1m21.911s 15
6 Sauber Bottas 1m22.025s 10
7 Williams Albon 1m22.064s 9
8 Haas Hulkenberg 1m22.086s 9

*Mercedes, Alpine only logged hard-tyre runs with best averages of 1m20.991s and 1m22.323s respectively.

Norris' run, firstly, was longer overall and thus can be depended upon for a larger data set. Furthermore, far fewer outliers had to be removed from the Briton's run; Leclerc had two laps that were removed from his average to account for traffic and other errors that were not representative of overall race pace. Norris, however, was able to prove over his stint that McLaren's pace was altogether repeatable throughout the stint.

While Norris didn't standout on the outright lap times, his and McLaren's pace is clear to see

While Norris didn't standout on the outright lap times, his and McLaren's pace is clear to see

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

In other words, Ferrari had the prestige of headlining both of Friday's sessions - but McLaren's outright pace in both qualifying and race trim should be stronger when it comes to the sessions that matter.

"Really bad" Red Bull struggling for balance

Verstappen's gravel-tousling antics underlined the difficulties that Red Bull faced on its opening day of running at Imola. The RB20 seemed to struggle particularly with how it pressed the soft tyre into service; Verstappen reported that the front tyres would "suddenly grip up a lot, and I almost spin", denoting the work that the team needs to do overnight to ensure he has the requisite balance for qualifying.

In the longer runs on medium tyres, Perez's overall pace was a smidgen faster than Verstappen's and with fewer off moments, and thus was more representative to include in the averages once outliers were removed. On that basis, it stacks up as the fourth-fastest package once the music stopped on Friday as Mercedes had a solid day with hard-tyre long runs putting it third on race pace - although Lewis Hamilton's role as traffic creator throughout FP2 irked a handful of drivers.

"It was tricky to get a good balance and we were not really feeling comfortable within the car. It was moving around a lot and was very easy to lose the car at some points on the track" Max Verstappen

"It's very easy to lose the car, so we have a few things that we have to look at because today definitely.... just bad, just not comfortable," Verstappen bemoaned. "Also the long run was really bad, so definitely a few things that we have to improve if we want to be competitive tomorrow. Today we were just severely off the pace that we need to fix."

Where Red Bull fell down in one-lap pace appeared to coalesce in the final sector; comparing Hamilton and Verstappen's best laps, the RB20 had a clear advantage in the opening sector. But, after the Acque Minerali exit, Verstappen's pace was far more variable. The corner exit from Variante Alta was solid, but Hamilton gathered more speed on the run to Rivazza and claimed the better exit from the final double-left - a corner where Verstappen notably struggled to find a rhythm. 

A series of upgrades for the RB20 focused largely on the front wing and floor, but the jury's currently out on them as Red Bull couldn't encounter a decent set-up on Friday. For the simulator drivers on call at Milton Keynes, expect them to burn the midnight oil to find a fix in time for Saturday's final practice session.

Red Bull is relying on its simulator drivers to find overnight set-up fixes

Red Bull is relying on its simulator drivers to find overnight set-up fixes

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

What they said

Charles Leclerc: "It has been a positive day overall. Everything went smoothly and we ran all the tests we planned on track. We seem to be pretty competitive for now, however the conditions will change quite a bit tomorrow, especially in terms of the wind, so we will have to anticipate that."

Lando Norris: "It’s been a reasonable day, if a little bit disrupted in places. We had a test programme with some things to try after our upgrades in Miami, which was important to fit in. But at the same time, we had to deal with a couple of little issues here and there which made completing our plan a little bit more tricky than we were hoping for. However, the car felt good, I think we made some good improvements through the day and I was happy with that. Another few into tomorrow and I think we can have a good day."

Max Verstappen: "It was a difficult day today. It was tricky to get a good balance and we were not really feeling comfortable within the car. It was moving around a lot and was very easy to lose the car at some points on the track. There are a few things we have to look at after today as our performance wasn’t as good as expected and we were not comfortable."

Who will come out on top at Imola?

Who will come out on top at Imola?

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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