Calling anyone a challenger to Mercedes in the 2020 season is a slight misnomer. Only at Silverstone, where the team tripped itself up over tyres, has it been beaten. Elsewhere it has had a comfortable advantage. The engine mode tweak is coming into force this weekend but its effect has been downplayed by many, though with a close midfield every tenth of a second will count.
Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were comfortably clear of the pack and barring an external factor they will be 1-2 in qualifying and the race.
But is the best of the rest position – usually occupied by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – up for grabs?
Only six-tenths of a second separated six teams behind Mercedes – a close fight considering that Hamilton was almost eight-tenths clear of Lando Norris.
The effect of the slipstream at Monza is enormous while the lack of corners obviously places less reliance on a car’s overall aerodynamic prowess.
Verstappen crashed during the morning session and then wound up ‘only’ fifth in the afternoon, conveying a less than buoyant approach post-FP2.
“Not a good day,” said Verstappen, who has never taken a Monza podium. “Struggling with balance and grip in general. Still quite a bit of work to do.”
Lando Norris was third overall but in spite of the lofty position was less than confident after a disrupted session meant he completed his hot lap later than his rivals.
“Not the best Friday just because of the lack of running,” he said. “We didn’t really get the chance to do any high-fuel runs, so we’re not in the best position.
“We’re in good shape for tomorrow, but we’re still a bit behind in our prep for Sunday. So, we might have to compromise FP3 tomorrow to try to fit in some more high-fuel runs and catch up.”
Norris’ pace was nonetheless reinforced by Carlos Sainz Jr. taking fifth but another team to catch the eye was AlphaTauri, which has recently emerged as Italy’s fastest Formula 1 team.
Pierre Gasly was fourth, and Dany Kvyat seventh, having also been comfortably among the front of the midfield in the opening session.
“Today was by far the best Friday since the start of the season,” said Gasly, who was fastest through the speed traps at a venue where the team, as Toro Rosso, scored its sole win in 2008.
“I must say the feeling in the car was really good! I could push and managed to put in some good laps.”
Racing Point, which qualified third in Hungary and Britain before falling behind Verstappen in the race, was also in the gaggle of teams.
Renault was third-best in Spa-Francorchamps and talk of a first podium since its Formula 1 return gathered momentum amid optimism over its low-downforce set-up.
On Friday the black-and-yellow R.S.20s were not at the sharp end of the grid but don’t be dissuaded by the overall results. Esteban Ocon, in 11th, was one driver tripped up by the slipstreaming mess while Daniel Ricciardo classified in 15th after exceeding track limits. Get it hooked up and Renault could be much further up the pack.
“I’m not concerned about that as it’s a small thing and today is about finding the limits,” said Ricciardo. “We know if we keep it on track tomorrow, we’re holding onto that lap time, which should put us up the leaderboard.”
Even Ferrari – yes, that is a phrase being written – could be in the mix if everything aligns. Charles Leclerc was half a second down on third spot but not without hope, as was the case last weekend.
All being equal Verstappen and Red Bull have enough armoury to get themselves together and re-emerge as Mercedes’ primary opponent. But if they slip up there’s no shortage of candidates to challenge for the podium.