The United States Grand Prix weekend started at full throttle, with the format allowing teams only one hour of free practice to fine-tune their car setups on a technical and challenging track in Austin. The circuit’s bumps add to the complexity, forcing all teams to raise their cars and soften the suspension setup, which is crucial for cars with ground-effect aerodynamics.
Max Verstappen leads with Sergio Perez closing in, but Red Bull not yet perfect
Once again, the newly crowned three-time World Champion, Max Verstappen, led the way, with Sergio Perez this time only three-tenths behind. However, the RB19 appeared to have some quirks in the car’s behavior that the engineers from the Milton Keynes-based team will need to correct before qualifying, as there will be a parc fermé condition following it. The impression is that the car’s rear tends to move more when it’s set higher, and overall, the drivers seem to have less confidence in load transfers. For instance, there was noticeable difficulty for Verstappen in the turn 9 and 10 section, both on hard and soft tires, indicating a car setup issue. Sometimes, it appears that to ensure maximum stability in corners, engineers adopt a stiffer roll setup (lateral rotation) but aim to provide a smooth ride over bumps by softening the pitch (longitudinal oscillation of the car). The baseline setup on the track appeared correct, but mechanical fine-tuning still seems to be necessary.
Mercedes stable and fast with the updates
With the new floor, Mercedes looked very competitive, especially with Lewis Hamilton. Data show a car that’s quite stable aerodynamically (likely the focus of this update) and performs well in the first sector, where precision in the front is crucial. The car also displays good traction until the entry of the final sector. In this last section, Hamilton might have experienced some tire overheating from the previous section, or perhaps he was disturbed by Norris in front. Nevertheless, Mercedes car number 44 had the best time after the first two sectors but ended up third, with a 3-tenths gap from curve 13 onwards. It appears that the Brackley team needs to work on the balance between the two axles to find the right equilibrium, with some room for improvement.
Ferrari starts well, potential growth to be assessed
Ferrari also had a good start, especially with Charles Leclerc, who finished second in the session, just 1.5 tenths behind Max Verstappen. Looking at the data, we notice an SF-23 with great straight-line speed but playing defense in the snake section due to known front-end issues. However, the car from Maranello shows great potential in the rest of the track, both on the long straight and in the section with long, sweeping corners, where some understeer sometimes even helps. The Monegasque struggles significantly in the penultimate corner, which is very fast and transits even 19 km/h slower than Verstappen, but he still finishes well with the second-best time.
The direction of the weekend will depend on how teams manage to fine-tune their setups in this very brief time frame. The impression is that Red Bull might be approachable, especially considering that McLaren is yet to be fully revealed. However, much will depend on how the teams can improve their cars, especially in terms of mechanical performance. Ferrari may have appeared to have less room for growth, but with only one hour of practice and a single attempt on soft tires, making accurate predictions is a challenging task. Therefore, we will have a clearer idea of the on-track competitiveness after qualifying.
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