The long-awaited Las Vegas Grand Prix is not getting off to the best start. The first free practice session lasted a handful of minutes before a manhole on the track caused significant damage to the floor of Guanyu Zhou’s Alfa Romeo.
Still, above all, it damaged the chassis of Esteban Ocon and the chassis, floor and battery pack of the Ferrari Carlos Sainz, undoubtedly the most affected car and who created the red flag that ended the session.
This is a situation defined very clearly by Frederic Vasseur as “Unacceptable” due to the danger faced by his driver, the damage suffered by the team and the consequences, as well as the image that Formula 1 has created in such a sponsored event.
The organization had to work for a long time to fix the various manholes along the entire track to ensure that a problem of this type did not occur again, postponing the start of free practice by over two hours.
FP2 was lengthened by 30 minutes, reaching a duration of 90 minutes, at the request of the same teams, to make up for the time lost during FP1, arriving at this session at 2.30 am (Las Vegas time) with extra work and stress for the mechanics, especially at Alpine and Ferrari.
FP2: The Ferrari SF-23 shows promise, Mercedes with more to come
The damage suffered in the accident during the first free practice session also damaged Carlos Sainz’s Power Unit, with Ferrari forced to change the internal combustion engine and battery pack, which had already reached the limit of the guaranteed units, and the use of a new member will give the Spaniard a grid penalty.
Ferrari requested the FIA to be able to use a new element without negative implications, given the circumstances not depending on the driver or team, having been damaged by an external element – the manhole. Still, the FIA rejected this request by the Italian team, who will therefore not be able to avoid the grid penalty for the Ferrari SF-23 number 55.
A remarkable effort from Ferrari and Alpine, who managed to get the two drivers back on track for the start of the one-and-a-half-hour free practice sessions.
The teams have different choices, with Meddia rubber used for Alpine, Red Bull, AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo, while the others use Soft rubber. Lando Norris suffered a problem at the start of the session, forcing his race engineer to call him back to the pits.
The track progressively improves, cleaning and rubberising as the laps go by. The action shows a Ferrari consistently competitive on the flying lap, with Max Verstappen managing to keep their pace even with the use of a ‘disadvantage’ compound, i.e. the Medium, battling with the two red standard bearers for the best time.
The problem that slowed down the McLaren drivers’ action was related to the cooling systems, but the mechanics managed to resolve the issue relatively quickly and get their drivers back on track.
Meanwhile, Max Verstappen took the best performance in the standings and returned to the pits after a run of 9 consecutive laps and then also fitted the Soft tyre.
Charles Leclerc performed a similar stint but with Soft rubber before making a stop and returning to the track with a new set of Qualifying tyres.
In third position is Alexander Albon with his Williams, while Carlos Sainz extends his first run before the break to 11 laps and follows his teammate’s programme.
Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are the authors of a small fight on the track during the warm-up lap, with the Ferrari driver who is surprised by the attitude of his ‘rival’ and then raises his foot after a bit of a scuffle, letting the Dutchman go.
The two thus lost a lap while Sergio Perez recorded his first time on the Soft tyre but was easily beaten by Carlos Sainz with an advantage of more than eight-tenths.
Max Verstappen, after a good first sector, goes wide at the bend at the end of the second sector, thus aborting the lap, while behind him, Charles Leclerc overtakes him again and closes his attempt +0.245 from the Spaniard’s time.
On the following lap, he manages to set a time with Soft Max Verstappen. He stops +0.148 from the reference of Carlos Sainz, who manages to improve his time again subsequently in 1:36.742, bringing his advantage over the Dutchman to almost four-tenths.
Charles Leclerc also pushes for another fast lap, taking the best performance in 1:36.660.
Lewis Hamilton gives a signal with the Mercedes. With a Ferrari in the wake, he gets close to the times of the Reds, stopping +0.318 from the best time, just behind Max Verstappen, who improves his previous time and stops three-tenths clear of the time of Charles Leclerc.
He finds another excellent trail in the third sector, Lewis Hamilton and closes an excellent lap that puts him just three-thousandths of a second behind the Monegasque’s time. Alexander Albon brings his Williams back to the top just 28 thousandths from the best time, confirming the FW45’s good references on a track of efficiency and high speeds.
After concentrating for a long time on the Medium tyre, Fernando Alonso began his work on the Soft tyre, progressively improving his references. On the sixth lap, around 40 minutes from the end, he managed to set the best time by three-thousandths of what was Charles Leclerc’s reference
This put five drivers – Alonso, Leclerc, Hamilton, Albon and Sainz – in less than a tenth. Ferrari and Red Bull continue on a very similar program and begin their third run, with a second Soft for the RB19 and a third for the SF-23, so as to then be able to go on a long-run plan.
The first of these four to close the fastest lap is Sergio Perez in 1.36.710, remaining behind Alexander Albon. At the same time, Carlos Sainz takes the best time in 1.36.354 with 3-tenths of an advantage over the time set a short while ago by Fernando Alonso.
However, Max Verstappen immediately takes the lead in 1.36.307 with 47 thousandths of an advantage. At the same time, Charles Leclerc aborts his first attempt to relaunch himself immediately afterwards.
He forcefully regains the first position with the best first and second sector, six-tenths of an advantage, and closes in 1,35,696. Max Verstappen manages to set a second fast lap and reduces his deficit to just under half a second. Carlos Sainz manages to do better than him, moving only +0.125 behind his teammate. Max Verstappen returned to the pits, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas also placed ahead of him.
Fernando Alonso also returns to the track with Soft tyres. He is very close to the reference of Charles Leclerc, who continued on track and managed to further improve the reference time by closing on all the others, putting more than half a second between himself and the others.
Advantage by setting a time of 1.35.265, confirming his and the Ferrari SF-23’s excellent impressions on this Friday in Las Vegas. After a further aborted lap due to a long run, Carlos Sainz also improved and completed a 1-2 Ferrari, although remaining half a second from the reference set by his teammate.
With less than 20 minutes to go, the teams begin the long-run simulation programme, particularly Ferrari and Red Bull, while Mercedes preferred to concentrate on this a few minutes early.
Times fluctuate due to traffic, but above all, to the variable track temperatures and track evolution. The first sensations confirm a very open Red Bull – Ferrari challenge, even if Carlos Sainz will have to serve the 10-position penalty for replacing the battery, with the other teams further behind after this first day of work.
Translation: Jaden Diaz-Ndisang