Formula One: Leclerc shines at Imola as Verstappen rues 'bad day'

AFP , Friday 17 May 2024

Charles Leclerc shone in the sunshine while Max Verstappen slithered and grumbled as the Ferrari driver dominated Friday practice for this weekend's Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Ferrari s Charles Leclerc
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco steers his car during the first free practice at the Dino and Enzo Ferrari racetrack, in Imola, Italy, Friday, April 17, 2024. Photo: AP


Leclerc made the most of a heavily-revised package while championship leader and three-time world champion Verstappen struggled for his usual Red Bull performance at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari.

"It's been a difficult day," said Verstappen. "We struggled for grip and balance and I was never comfortable in the car. It moved around a lot. We have a lot of things to look at and improve.

"It's a performance issue and we need to improve for tomorrow if we are to be competitive. It looks like the others have all made a step forward and now it's up to us to catch up. It's been a bad day."

Leclerc clocked a best lap in one minute and 15.906 seconds to ease 0.192 clear of nearest rival Oscar Piastri of McLaren with RB's Yuki Tsunoda snatching third in a closely-bunched pack at the front of the field.

It signalled a successful first day too for Leclerc’s partnership with new race engineer Bryan Bozzi after the "scarlet scuderia" chose to make mid-season changes in their line-up.

"For sure, it all went quite smoothly today and the upgrades worked well, which is a good step for us, so it was a good day altogether," said Leclerc.

"But tomorrow the forecast is for a big change in the wind and the track conditions with some bad weather forecast for Sunday.

'Feet on ground'

"So we have to keep our feet on the ground and work carefully because qualifying here is super-important as it is not an easy circuit for overtaking."

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was fourth ahead of team-mate George Russell and Carlos Sainz in the second Ferrari, leaving an exasperated Verstappen back in seventh ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez.

Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Haas and two-time champion Fernando Alonso 10th for Aston Martin on a day when most drivers had struggles with the windy conditions.

"It's been a good start to the weekend for us," said an upbeat Hamilton.

"It is clear that the car feels much better and I am grateful to the factory for the upgrades."

Verstappen slid off and detoured through gravel traps three times in all while Hamilton and Sainz were also seen spinning and taking unscheduled excursions.

Both latter drivers are set to leave their respective teams at the end of the year with Hamilton moving to Ferrari to replace the Spaniard and hoped to impress the Italian crowd this weekend.

Their teams also confirmed more staff transfers with another senior Mercedes man, chief aerodynamicist Gioacchino Vino set to join Ferrari after a spell of "gardening leave", joining performace director Loic Serra and driver development boss Jerome D'Ambrosio whose moves were announced earlier this week.

In reply, Mercedes have signed two Ferrari staff Simone Resta and Enrico Sampo -- Resta as head of strategic development and Sampo as head of performance software.

Technical director James Allison said Mercedes were recruiting "experienced and good" people at a similar rate to their departures.

"So I guess it is our job to try and make sure we act in such a way that people would rather be with us than anywhere else," he added.

Amid the flux of upcoming driver moves and technical boss Adrian Newey's decision to leave Red Bull, it seemed that a shift in momentum may be taking place – but the champion team has proved it can bounce back on Saturdays many times before.

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