The first day of the Japanese Grand Prix was, to use Lewis Hamilton’s words, “pretty dull…just gray and wet”.
Well, that understates it a bit. Watching Formula 1 cars take on the famous Suzuka circuit in the wet will always be a sight to behold, regardless of the lack of betting.
But it broadly captures the day’s relevance to the rest of the weekend, which is forecast to be dry and hopefully livelier than the gray nonchalance of wet practice.
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We will start Saturday with the tantalizing image that Mercedes is the team to beat at the very least. The German marque put in a consistently strong showing in the tricky conditions and appeared to have addressed one of its car’s key weaknesses in doing so, sparking a small glimmer of optimism that form could continue for the rest of the weekend.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing are a step behind, while Ferrari on the surface would seem to have some work to do, but then again, it’s never wise to read too much into wet practice times ahead of dry qualifying.
But no one will be more eager to put Friday behind them than Mick Schumacher, whose day ended frustratingly early in a shockingly damaging crash, and one that could prove extremely costly for the team and his career.
WILL MERCEDES BE A GOOD THING?
George Russell led Mercedes in FP2, 0.235sec ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez were almost 0.7 seconds further back.
Seeing two drivers closely matched tends to imply that most of it is being squeezed out of the car, suggesting that the pace picture guessed at on Friday was accurate, at least for the conditions. Although we don’t know the engine modes and fuel levels, and the time the lap was set and the freshness of the tires can have massive effects on pace in a way that isn’t immediately apparent on the time sheet.
But as these conditions are unlikely to be repeated for the rest of the weekend, times are of little value.
“Not a bad afternoon,” he said.
“It probably won’t be as representative for this weekend, but it’s definitely a good learning curve for the future,” Russell said. “There is a chance that Sunday will be wet, but it looks quite dry. [on Saturday].
“However, it’s always good to finish the day at the top of the timesheets, and we definitely made some improvements from FP1 as we were at the bottom of the timesheets.
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Hamilton at least seemed optimistic that there could be more on the table for qualifying and the race, hinting that the team had found a small win in a long-standing problem with tire temperature generation, and the issue that slowed the team last week in Singapore, particularly on fresh intermediate tyres.
“I think we will be fighting, as always, for the top six positions,” he said. “I hope we can have a chance at something better, but I really don’t know.
“On the plus side, we were able to change tires today, so we didn’t look slow. So that’s good.
“There are always things to take from [wet sessions] — some of the things with the setup, some of the things with the tire wear, the tire temperatures and the balance that we’re moving around, testing between sessions.
“There are definitely things to take away from it, and there is data on downforce levels and what wing levels everyone else is on.
“We will have to wait and see until FP3, that will be a crucial session for everyone.”
Solving the tire temperature issue could still be valuable even in the dry, with the weather forecast to stay cool and in the low 20s.
It’s clearly too early to tell what the competitive order will look like, and Verstappen, who can seal the championship this weekend by winning the race with the fastest lap, among other possible permutations, said he wasn’t reading anything into Friday practice. .
“In terms of knowing where you are with the pace, in the wet it’s a bit tricky,” he said.
“It’s basically a fresh start tomorrow in the dry, but again, it’s the same for everyone, and I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference across the grid.”
A VERY COSTLY MISTAKE
When you’re so late in a season and without a contract, the last thing you want to do is cancel your car.
However, Mick Schumacher, who is out of contract at Haas and under heavy pressure to be replaced by veteran compatriot Nico Hulkenberg, managed to do just that in the weekend’s lowest-stakes practice session.
The first practice was already over when he dumped his car on his way back to pit lane. He was going through the esses, which, to be fair, were being drenched in rain at the time, when his car suddenly broke apart under him and he was hurtling towards the inner barrier at Dunlop.
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It wasn’t particularly fast and, on the surface, seemed to do little more than damage the front wing and right front assembly.
But after taking the car to the garage, Haas was concerned enough about Schumacher’s chassis to switch it to the spare tub, a process that takes so long that he was unable to enter FP2.
A tub costs close to $1 million to build. If it is found to be irreparable, it will prove to be a very costly mistake, particularly in the cost cap era.
All things considered, it was not a great day.
Team boss Guenther Steiner pulled no punches in reacting to the accident.
“At some point you’re a racing driver and you know in the spray you can’t see, and before there was water,” he said. motoring. “I mean, I’m not out there, I’m not telling you how hard it is.
“This job is not easy, you know. But in the end it was self-inflicted.
“I mean, yeah, there was dew, there was water, but we all know that.”
The German denied that the pressure of his position was affecting him.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “The pressure is something that I have been dealing with for quite some time and I would say even my whole life, so I don’t care.
“It was more due to the fact that we had a car in front of us that was throwing up a lot of spray, so we didn’t see where to put the car.
“I want to do my best, so it doesn’t matter what happened before.
“We take one thing at a time, and now it’s FP3 tomorrow and qualifying.”
He will need to put in a strong performance in qualifying and the race to salvage this weekend.
WHY WAS THERE SO LITTLE RUNNING ON FRIDAY?
In FP1, more than half the field completed 10 laps or less. In FP2, on average, each car completed only around 20 laps despite having an extra 30 minutes to play.
Both sessions were about a third less than the amount of running seen in the same respective sessions in 2019.
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The difference, of course, is that it was raining, and there are two key reasons why the rain prevented racing.
The first is that there is no rain forecast for qualifying and only an external probability of rain materializing for the race. So the conditions weren’t representative of competitive sessions, meaning there was only a limited amount of data that could be collected when riding in wet conditions beyond systems checks and some basic setup tests.
The second is that the risk is significantly increased in the rain around one of the most unforgiving circuits on the calendar, where the walls are close, there are few tarmac exit corners and the layout itself is naturally demanding.
With so little to gain but so much to lose from a small mistake that turned into a massive crash, teams and drivers opted not to race in any meaningful way.
What it will mean is that FP3, which is forecast to be dry, will be unusually busy as teams try to squeeze all of Friday’s work into a single one-hour session ahead of qualifying.
You can be sure that the European-based sims will have been hard at work overnight to give their circuit-based colleagues some direction to start today.