What we learned in Friday practice at the Monaco Grand Prix

Margins at the top after FP2 were tight, and with qualifying so decisive to a good result in Monaco it means a different outlook to weekend preparations than usual.

The Friday practice bragging rights ahead of Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix belonged to Max Verstappen, who headed FP2 while FP1 chart-topper Carlos Sainz crashed in the second session.

Collecting a 1m12.462s despite none of his sector times being of sufficient quality to grace the timing boards in purple, Verstappen stitched together a consistent trio of splits to ensure he made the most of his Red Bull RB19 across the whole duration of the lap. This carried him above the Ferraris of Sainz and Charles Leclerc, the former having truncated his session with a clash with the inside wall on the exit of the Swimming Pool section.

Sainz had set the pace in the first session, three-tenths ahead of countryman Fernando Alonso, and was once again among the front-runners before producing a near carbon copy of team-mate Leclerc’s qualifying crash in the Principality in 2021. The red flag delayed the obligatory late-session race simulations, but a swift clean-up operation offered 12 minutes of uninterrupted running at the end.

This nonetheless impacted the level of information that the teams could glean but, as is often the case at Monaco, nailing the qualifying runs was nonetheless the priority.

Here’s everything we learned from Friday practice in Monaco.

The story of the day

Shunting at the Swimming Pool in FP2 didn't do Sainz any favours

Shunting at the Swimming Pool in FP2 didn’t do Sainz any favours

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

It may seem hackneyed to say, but Monaco is one of the most punishing circuits on the F1 calendar, owing to the close proximity of the walls and tight corners. That both practice sessions included red flags came as no surprise, given that practice offers a chance for teams and drivers to test the limits of their cars’ adhesion to the road.

FP1 featured a brace of red flags, the first emerging to clean up debris when Nico Hulkenberg suffered a clash with the inside wall at the Nouvelle Chicane. The German detached the left-rear tyre off the rim, causing him to spin. He crawled back to the pits with minimal damage, but a short lull in proceedings was considered necessary.

Alex Albon’s crash at the end of the session was more costly, as he crashed at Sainte Devote as the session was drawing to a close and totalled much of the left-hand side of the Williams, also bringing FP1 to a slightly premature end.

Going by their fastest soft-tyre laps, Red Bull’s advantage over Ferrari has largely manifested itself from corner exits – particularly at Casino Square and Portier

Sainz was the culprit for the sole red flag in FP2, when he got far too close to the inside barrier on the exit of La Piscine and broke his right-front suspension – leaving him no other option but to bear right into the wall. This cost him a chance of reprising his role at the top of the timesheets and, when the session got going again, the focus on longer runs cemented the order with Verstappen at the pinnacle.

The Spaniard had just been displaced from the second-fastest time by team-mate Leclerc, who had been struggling with “jumping” on board his Ferrari when tackling the low-speed corners, where one wheel would jack up during kerb strikes. Sainz had looked the more comfortable of the two during the Friday sessions, but his crash cost him the chance to conduct any race preparations.

Verstappen’s headline time thus withstood any further tests, but the margins were wafer-thin between he and the Ferrari duo. The Red Bull squad had been expected to lose some of its advantage in the slow-speed environs of the Monegasque course; while that indeed came to pass, he retained his familiar table on top of the order nonetheless.

Why qualifying will be even more important than usual in Monaco

Lining up on pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix can be unscientifically characterised as 95% of the job done in pursuit of victory. Even in the era of smaller, narrower cars, the claustrophobic streets of Monte Carlo are notoriously unconducive to overtaking in Formula 1, but pole will add a separate level of prestige in this year’s event.

This is because the margins are so close between the teams this time around, owing to the characteristics of each car on the grid, and using race pace to predict the race will ultimately yield an unreliable narrative. Negotiating traffic in Q3 will be paramount, and will be one of the key differentiators in deciding the grid for Sunday’s race.

Going by their fastest soft-tyre laps, Red Bull’s advantage over Ferrari has largely manifested itself from corner exits – particularly at Casino Square and Portier. The SF-23 is a match under acceleration and has been able to stabilise any losses in time as the pace picks up, but has not been able to overturn that disadvantage in those particular areas.

Verstappen edged Leclerc to the top spot in FP2, proving stronger on corner exits

Verstappen edged Leclerc to the top spot in FP2, proving stronger on corner exits

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

As has been the case over the season so far, the Ferrari is particularly strong under braking and both Leclerc and Sainz have been imbued with the confidence to jump off the throttle later than their rivals, but this seems to hinder them slightly on the exit. But it’s fine margins, and Ferrari holds an advantage in the opening stretch of the circuit and through the Mirabeau to Portier section.

Aston Martin, encumbered by the hopes of a surprise Fernando Alonso victory in Monaco, has been weaker than its rival squads at two of the slowest parts of the track – namely, the Loews hairpin and the Nouvelle Chicane. The AMR23 also has strengths under traction, but the drivers seem to lack confidence in the slowest parts of the track. Throttle traces show a small blip at the Nouvelle Chicane as Alonso attempts to coerce the car into behaving.

Mercedes is a little behind the front three, although there is cautious optimism within the camp over its new upgrades. Although Monaco will naturally obscure many of the new updates’ finer details, the drivers have reported greater stability on the brakes thanks to revisions with the front suspension.

There have been struggles with understeer in the Mirabeau, Hairpin, and Portier corners, and a lack of confidence in the first corner has contrived to set Lewis Hamilton and George Russell slightly behind the Red Bulls and Ferraris from the off, but overnight tweaks may offer opportunities to alleviate those symptoms.

Ferrari has a very real opportunity to draw first blood by the end of Saturday’s sessions if the drivers can avoid smearing the barriers with red paint

Race runs on the medium tyre were brief, and Mercedes had been able to shine more in that context. Hamilton’s laps were within two-tenths of Verstappen’s, but with such a small sample size there’s little opportunity to compare them beyond that. Alonso did his longer runs on a set of soft tyres and therefore seem incomparable to the medium, which is expected to be the favoured tyre for much of the grand prix.

Alpine was surprisingly strong during its fleeting longer runs on the medium, and Esteban Ocon’s times outclassed those of Verstappen, while Gasly was sometimes in a similar ballpark. Again, traffic looked to be a differentiator, and the propensity for trains to form during the race will largely render long-run pace to be highly circumstantial.

If it comes down to qualifying, which it likely will barring any threat of inclement weather across the weekend, Ferrari has a very real opportunity to draw first blood by the end of Saturday’s sessions if the drivers can avoid smearing the barriers with red paint.

Verstappen can spoil that party, but Ferrari’s fortune is very much in its own hands. Perhaps that’s something that even the most ardent tifoso may be afraid of…

What the drivers say

Can Leclerc muscle in on the pole fight?

Can Leclerc muscle in on the pole fight?

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Verstappen: “I think FP1 was quite tricky, I was not really happy with the ride of the car on the kerbs and the bumps. FP2 was already a lot better, the car felt more competitive. Compared to Ferrari especially we’re still a bit lacking on the general ride of the car, how it handles the kerbs, the bumps,. the drops in camber. That’s still something we need to work on for tomorrow because you can see they are very, very close and knowing that one you go to the limit in qualifying we need a bit more to stay ahead of them.”

Hamilton: “I’ve generally had an amazing day, I really enjoyed driving today. And I think we got a lot of data. I mean, it’s not the place to ultimately test and upgrade but the car was generally feeling good. I think obviously, it was a bit of a shame, we weren’t as close as I’d hoped at the end of the session, but definitely felt the improvements. And we’ve just got to keep chipping away to see if we can squeeze any more juice out of the car.”

Russell: “Qualifying is a part of the weekend where we generally struggle. We always do better on a Sunday, when you look at the last 18 months, so we need to try and figure some stuff out overnight, there’s definitely some positive signs to take from the session, definitely improved from FP1. It’s never easy around this place.”

Russell took heart from Mercedes' improvements with its upgraded W14 between sessions

Russell took heart from Mercedes’ improvements with its upgraded W14 between sessions

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

2023-05-26 20:21:09