Ferrari finished practice for Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix comfortably clear at the top of the field, with hometown hero Charles Leclerc fronting Carlos Sainz for top spot.
Not since 2017, when Sebastian Vettel led a 1-2 finish, have the scarlet cars looked so comfortable around the streets of the Principality.
The Italian squad is still recovering from the disappointing 2020 campaign in which it fell into the midfield pack, scoring only three podiums along the way. A top three finish is yet to greet Ferrari this year, which is why the team’s free practice result turned heads.
It holds fourth in the standings, though has regularly had the third-best car in qualifying, especially in the hands of seven-time pole-sitter Leclerc.
Qualifying is everything at Monaco. Overtaking in the race has always been difficult, but in today’s era of wide, long cars, it has become almost impossible. Long run pace is almost irrelevant given the importance of track position and managing a simple one-stop strategy.
Ferrari’s last pole position came at the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix, although it was outpaced by Max Verstappen, who received a three-place grid penalty for a yellow flag infringement. In 2019, when it was last competitive, it was at circuits with long straights where Ferrari thrived best, equipped with a power unit that caused controversy due to a private post-season settlement between the team and the FIA following an investigation.
Having a nimble car around Monaco will be encouraging for Ferrari, as both Leclerc and Sainz were happy with the balance during the day, despite Leclerc missing most of FP1 with a gearbox issue.
“I was quite surprised that [the day] ended that way because Monaco, here, it’s very important to do as many laps as we can,” said Leclerc. “Unfortunately with the issue I had in FP1, I had done almost four laps. I felt quite at ease with the car in FP2 and managed to put that lap [together].”
Sainz, who has always scored points in Monaco, added: “It’s nice to see that we are at least closer to the front, that we are playing around at the front. It’s encouraging for the team, there’s some positive signs that the car in the corners is not that bad.”
The team’s sector times hold up nicely. Leclerc was fastest in the second sector (by some margin) at the end of FP2, while Sainz posted purple times in sectors one and three.
Leclerc’s overall time placed him four-tenths of a second ahead of the first non-Ferrari car, which was Hamilton in third. Sainz was almost three-tenths faster than the reigning world champion, who is hunting his fourth victory around Monaco this weekend.
Leclerc and Hamilton were almost identical in the first sector, but it is the middle part of the lap where Leclerc excelled, going two-tenths up on Hamilton and Verstappen.
Ferrari’s form compared to Mercedes in recent races would still leave it as outsiders for the rest of the weekend, despite the encouraging times from Thursday. Therefore, there is a bit of hesitancy over declaring itself in contention for pole position and the win.
“We definitely look close to being a genuine threat,” admitted Sainz. “We need to wait, we need to wait until FP3. Things change a lot from Thursday to Saturday here, there are some drivers who sandbag a bit on Thursday, just because they want to take it easy. Suddenly on Saturday, Lewis always is super quick, so we will see.”
While Hamilton has produced strong laps in Q3, so too has Leclerc, who has often leapfrogged onto the second row of the grid with eye-catching laps.
Barcelona’s third sector is often an indicator of who will be fast at Monaco – two weeks ago it was Red Bull who commanded the slow-speed section of the lap, with Leclerc almost two-tenths down on pole-sitter Hamilton in the final sector alone.
With that considered, it is probably right for the Ferrari duo to reserve judgement and wait until the chequered flag falls on Saturday.
However it is clear that Mercedes and Red Bull both have work to do. Monaco has never been Mercedes’ happiest hunting ground in the hybrid era – even accounting for its five wins – while Max Verstappen’s record around its streets is not the best either. Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez were also subdued on Thursday.
Ferrari’s rivals were in no doubt that the scarlet machines are in the mix.
“The Ferraris look really strong, which is great, it means more competition,” said Hamilton.
Added Verstappen: “They’re doing very well and we are very weak, so then the offset is very big. The gap they [Ferrari] have is big around here.”
McLaren’s Lando Norris says Ferrari’s pace is no surprise to him: “I texted Carlos before the weekend saying he was going to win. It was quite obvious that they were going to be quick here. They are very quick in the slow speed corners and that is basically all we have here, so not us not a surprise at all.”
Ferrari may be without a pole or victory since 2019 but ending Monaco Thursday in a commanding 1-2 means that streak surely has a chance of coming to an end.