After Mercedes challenged the faster Red Bull to a narrow victory in the first race in Bahrain, the world champion closed the first day of testing in Imola as the favourite.

But was this a case of business as usual or will Red Bull drop out in qualifying?

A defective drive shaft prevented Max Verstappen from setting a good time in the second practice session at Imola on Friday afternoon. This allowed Mercedes to finish the first day of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Valtteri Bottas set the fastest time to Lewis Hamilton – as he did in qualifying at this track last year – but neither driver seemed to go over the limit in their laps.

Sergio Perez finished fifth behind Red Bull. The two Italian Formula 1 teams, Ferrari and Alfa Tauri, closed the 0.860 gap between the Mexican and the two Mercedes teams.

With Verstappen’s Red Bull out before he could show his potential, it was a bit like last year.

But make no mistake, the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix still has plenty of potential for surprises.

Home advantage?

Charles Leclerc’s impressive Friday ended with a crash at the end of FP2. Peter van Egmond/Getty Images

Bottas’ 1:15.551 on the medium tyre stood proudly at the top of the timesheet at the end of the second session, but it was not Friday’s fastest lap.

That honour went to Charles Leclerc, who clocked a time of 1:15.367 – 0.184 seconds faster than Bottas – before being dropped from the standings for exceeding the circuit’s limit on exiting Turn 9, known as Piratello.

GPS data shows that Leclerc was able to go 5km/h faster than Hamilton in Piratello during his fastest laps on soft tyres. However, it is difficult to say whether this speed advantage was due to an increase in Leclerc’s deficit or the fact that the Ferrari had a more powerful engine.

The intermediate times show that the mid-lap sector, where Piratello is, was the only one of the three sectors where Leclerc had an advantage over the Mercedes drivers. We can therefore assume that Mercedes has sufficient reserves and was able to make up for lost time in other corners of the circuit.

Furthermore, neither Mercedes was able to make the expected 0.5 second time gain when switching from medium to soft, reinforcing the suspicion that the engine had been held off during the fastest laps.

Mercedes’ sandbags shouldn’t cast a shadow over Ferrari’s progress, they just help put Leclerc’s distant time in context.

After nine laps on medium tyres, Leclerc’s average time was 1:19.232, before using Rivazza’s second tyre to end the session in the wall.

On the radio, Leclerc apologized to his team: Sorry, guys. I tried very hard.

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Up to that point, his long-distance performance was inferior to that of the two Mercedes drivers, who averaged 1:19.4s on the same tyre compound but were almost certainly loaded with lighter fuel.

Nevertheless, the fact that the red car is back on track is testament to the progress made just 90 kilometres from Imola to Maranello.

The car feels much better in these conditions. I feel good this weekend, even if you compare it to last year, I feel much better, Leclerc said. The balance is better, the grip is very good and I have some confidence in the car, so I am looking forward to tomorrow.

But if Ferrari wants to finish this weekend’s home race behind Mercedes and Red Bull, it will face stiff competition from the only team closer to the Imola circuit, AlphaTauri.

Pierre Gasly finished the session third, just 0.078 seconds behind Bottas – and without abusing the track’s limits.

The GPS data again supports the theory that the Mercedes was in a reduced power mode, as it set a lap time of 0.55 seconds against Bottas on the straight, but the AlfaTauri seems to be the fastest car on this circuit.

Ghazli managed to maintain his one-lap pace in the long competitive race.

He spent most of the time on the soft tyre, which seems to be a weaker race tyre compared to the medium tyre Leclerc was using, but when he switched to the medium tyre towards the end of the session he immediately set two faster competition times than Leclerc on the same compound.

Ironically, hopes of getting more data to compare with Ferrari were cut short when Leclerc’s accident caused a red flag, ending the session five minutes early.

Does Mercedes have an advantage over Red Bull in Imola?

Valtteri Bottas was the fastest in both sessions. Clive Mason – Formula One via Getty Images

Verstappen’s absence from the second practice session makes it incredibly difficult to draw any conclusions about the battle between Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Dutchman was 0.058 seconds behind Bottas’ best time in morning practice, suggesting the speed is in the car, but he goes into the race weekend with his back against the wall after missing the all-important time in the afternoon.

His teammate Perez struggled with the car on one lap and set the fifth time, but his long pace looks more promising and suggests Red Bull could get closer to Mercedes if it stays dry on Sunday.

The configuration of the Imola circuit and the much cooler conditions than at the first round in Bahrain seem to have worked in Mercedes’ favour, giving the world champions a slight advantage.

The balance of the car is much better than in Bahrain, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. The car seemed to be in good shape this morning and this afternoon.

I think the weather helped a little bit, because we were struggling, especially in Bahrain. On Friday, I’m very happy to see that.

It was one of those [drivers] that are really good because they said the balance is good, with the understeer, sitting behind the wheel, but overall they feel really good with the car.

Max Verstappen’s track time was limited by a problem with the car. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Hamilton added: I think the team has worked really hard to understand what happened in the last race where we were weak and to see if we can try to tune the car a bit better.

But I also think the trail came a little more in our direction.

Perez, who missed more than 20 minutes of the first practice session after colliding with Esteban Ocon in an incident, also noted the difference from the previous race but was confident that Red Bull would find more power for qualifying.

Very different, very different problems with Bahrain, Perez said. In a way, you’re improving. With each round, I learned a few things here and there.

In all, there will be more performances tomorrow….. I think we know where to find them and I hope we can do much better in qualifying, because the race pace looks strong.

The battle at the top looks to be very evenly matched once again, with a slight advantage for Mercedes thanks to the drivers’ two smoothest practice sessions on Friday.

However, any direction that the first two practice sessions took could be completely skewed if the rain forecast for Sunday is confirmed.

A second consecutive race weekend in 2021 is just too close to decide.

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