The Mercedes largely dominated the first free practice session in Austin with a Valtteri Bottas (1’34”874) winner here in 2019, who would overtake Lewis Hamilton by 0”045. A double which confirms the potential of the W12, as seen in Sochi and Turkey. Behind the Mercedes duo, we find the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, but at a distance. 0”932 behind for the Dutchman …
Still, the cup won by Bottas tastes a little bitter, since the Finn will have to suffer a penalty of at least 5 places on Sunday for a sixth engine change …
Behind the two top teams, we find the two Ferraris (Leclerc 4th, Sainz 5th) and the still very solid Pierre Gasly (6th at 1”737 from the reference time). Esteban Ocon finished 12th in this first session at 2”096. Substantial gaps between the eighteen drivers of the field and the untouchable Mercedes on this sunny Friday morning in Austin.
A session that was interrupted for a long time from the launch of the single-seaters, following a breakdown (hydraulic leak) in Fernando Alonso’s Alpine. His car being blocked at the exit of turn 12, the interruption would last nearly 10 minutes, without the stopwatch being stopped. After fearing an engine change which would have forced the Spanish driver to fall back ten or even twenty places depending on the engine parts involved, the Alpine would set off again after a good half hour of work on its F1. Temporary phew of relief for Fernando.
If the “engine” suspense is likely to continue for the latter, other drivers already know that Sunday will be complicated. George Russell (Williams) and Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin), who will both change their Mercedes engine block, will be penalized. A precaution which shows that this propellant, which has become very sharp in performance, is at the limit, as we have seen with the recent changes to the thermal unit on the single-seaters of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton in recent weeks.
Mercedes engine reliability in question
We also learned, in the heart of the session, that Bottas was going to change engine for the sixth time this weekend, which again raises questions about the reliability of the German engine. And on Mercedes’ willingness to use Bottas – sorry to sacrifice him – to optimize the potential of the in-house thruster. The Finn, Lewis Hamilton’s official tester, therefore joined the long list of drivers to be sanctioned (a decline of 5 places according to initial information) on a track where one can easily overtake.
At the end of the track, Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) was the first to set off in the gravel without damaging his car. Imitated a little later by the two Haas pilots with Nikita Mazepin then by Mick Schumacher, sent to the daisies by Sergio Perez.
And when the clock fell, Kimi Räikkönen rewarded the 120,000 spectators who had come to celebrate the return of F1 to the United States after a year 2020 without a GP on the territory, with a pretty figure of speech without consequence.