Mark Hughes: Ferrari’s opportunity as Red Bull plays catch-up

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Max Verstappen missed a big chunk of FP2 at the Australian Grand Prix as his car was being repaired and its floor replaced after he heavily grounded it on the Albert Park circuit’s savage and fast Turn 10 exit kerbs. Consequently, he and Red Bull are behind on their programme.

Quick on the medium tyre, he didn’t find all that much time from the soft, so a best time over four tenths adrift of the session-heading Ferrari of Charles Leclerc should not be taken as representative. Nor should the long-run averages of Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez, as they did only eight laps of long running between them, with Perez having absorbed much of the set-up workload prior to the long runs on account of Verstappen’s absence.

So there is a lot of catching up for Red Bull to do between Friday night and Saturday morning’s FP3 session, Verstappen reporting understeer on both the medium and the soft tyre.

“Yes, I damaged the floor and the chassis,” revealed Verstappen. “That lost 20 minutes even though it was a quick turnaround. Ferrari is quick but there are things we can fine-tune. Nothing worrying.”

Might this provide an opportunity for a non-Red Bull pole? If so, then Ferrari is the obvious favourite to take advantage of its rival’s difficulties.

Long run times

Driver Time Laps
Leclerc 1m22.93s 6 laps
Piastri 1m23.09s 11 laps
Norris 1m23.14s 8 laps
Stroll 1m23.35s 9 laps
Sainz 1m23.61s 7 laps
Russell 1m23.76s 5 laps
Perez 1m23.82s 5 laps
Verstappen 1m24.00s 3 laps
Alonso 1m24.25s 12 laps

Conforming to the pattern of the opening two races, the SF-24 looks to have a clear advantage over the rest. Carlos Sainz eased himself back into the saddle impressively well after his recent operation, but it was Leclerc all the way over both a single lap and the long-run simulations.

Both McLarens were pretty much as quick as Leclerc on the long runs, with Oscar Piastri’s average just 0.1s away despite running almost twice as many laps.

On a single lap, with DRS deployed, the McLaren looked less impressive, losing over 0.8s to the Ferrari and falling behind George Russell’s Mercedes and the Aston Martins, with Lance Stroll looking unusually strong, quicker than Alonso on the qualifying simulation. Their long runs were conducted with different fuel loads, however.

Lewis Hamilton was experiencing all sorts of woes, having grounded out his Mercedes’ floor on his qualifying simulation lap. After losing a lot of time in the garage, he came out to begin his long run only to quickly conclude that there was still something wrong with the car.

“We haven’t unlocked any performance,” said Toto Wolff of their performance. “In the second session we did a dramatic set-up change on Lewis’ car and that has massively backfired. Overall, not a good day.”

The move to the softest tyre selection in Pirelli’s range looks likely to have a major impact on race strategy, with a one-stop – starting on the medium and switching to the hard – the safe but possibly slower choice over a two-stop soft/medium/medium. The latter looks to be quite challenging, but potentially faster.

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