MUGELLO, Italy (AP) — Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas has some cause for optimism after leading both practices for the Tuscan Grand Prix on Friday.
His confidence needs boosting because he trails Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton by 47 points in the standings, and not won a race since the season-opener in Austria.
“It’s been a lot of fun today and I’ve enjoyed every single lap,” the Finn said. “There’s still quite a bit of lap time to unlock, both in the car and also as a driver. This track is definitely one of the most physically demanding.”
Mugello's 5.2-kilometer (3.2-mile) Autodromo Internazional track, nestled amid a stunning backdrop of the Tuscan hills, usually hosts MotoGP and is hosting an F1 race for the first time.
“The whole opening section with the high-speed chicanes and the second sector is just amazing,” Bottas said. “This track is definitely one of the most physically demanding.”
The succession of fast corners even left a big impression on Hamilton, and the six-time world champion took a bit of time to settle into his driving.
“I have to say, this track is pretty intense. So fast and challenging, it’s amazing to experience. I love it,” he said. “There’s no time to play around here and it’s one of the most physically demanding that I’ve driven for a while.”
But whereas Hamilton was driving on it for the first time, Bottas was one of a handful who had test driven here. Hamilton was about half a second slower than Bottas in the first session — where he was only fourth — but improved in the afternoon by placing .207 behind Bottas in second.
Encouragingly for Red Bull, Max Verstappen was only .246 behind Bottas in third place in the second practice, having been even closer in P1 when he was second.
“I’m pretty pleased with how the car was behaving,” Verstappen said. “We were not too far off Mercedes so that was a good thing."
Celebrating its 1,000th F1 race on a track it owns, and where its drivers test drove in June, made little difference for struggling Ferrari. Charles Leclerc was 10th and Sebastian Vettel 12th. Worse still, Vettel's engine cut out right at the end and he was left stranded on the side of the track. Last weekend, both Ferraris failed to finish the Italian GP.
Friday's afternoon session was briefly suspended twice after minor crashes left debris scattered around.
Approaching the halfway point of the 90-minute session, McLaren driver Lando Norris lost the rear of the car and went backward into the barriers.
Then about 15 minutes from the end, the red flag came out again when Kimi Raikkonen's Alfa Romeo spun into gravel. Racing Point's Sergio Perez was just behind him and a crash was narrowly avoided. Both drivers were summoned by the stewards over the incident and Perez was given a one-place grid penalty for Sunday.
There is a third practice at Saturday lunchtime ahead of qualifying in the afternoon.
Fans were present for the first time at the ninth race this season amid the coronavirus pandemic. The 3,000 spectators were split into three stands.
Earlier Friday, Bottas was .048 quicker than Verstappen with Leclerc third and Hamilton fourth.
Pierre Gasly, who won his first race last weekend in Monza, was fifth.
Vettel was a lowly 13th and Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto tried to explain why.
“Charles (Leclerc) drove very well this morning, I think Seb’s searching for confidence in the car a bit,” Binotto said. “Which is the real Ferrari? I think it’s neither one nor the other.”
Haas driver Romain Grosjean almost crashed into the back of Perez and had to swerve suddenly to the left. Grosjean then sat out the last 30 minutes of P2 because of an electronic failure.
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