Two time Italian Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull gave a clear statement of intent to their competitors today as they topped Free Practice for the Italian Grand Prix by a significant margin, with team mate Mark Webber completing the clean sweep in second place.
Vettel sent a daunting message to his rivals by lapping 8/10ths faster than the first non-Red Bull car of Kimi Raikkonen. His long run times on both the hard and medium tyres looked impressive and consistent too.
Red Bull set the pace from the outset and headed the field by nearly half a second on the hard tyre. Following a KERS battery change between today’s sessions, Webber was out on track to join his team mate at the top of the standings.
With the bit between his teeth, Vettel was the first to take to the medium-option tyre as the session hit the thirty minute mark. And as we have often seen in the Pirelli-era, the faster laps came on the second flying lap following a cooling down lap.
After lapping 3/10th of a second faster during his first lap on the medium tyre, Vettel dropped off the pace for a lap before going for a final flying lap. He was able to find a further 3/10ths here and put himself well ahead of his competitors.
Webber made it a dominant session for the World Championship leaders with a lap time more than 6/10ths slower than Vettel. It shows signs of a strong weekend for Red Bull who, like in Spa, have found an excellent balance between straight line speed and downforce.
And on a Monza circuit that historically suits the greater power of a Mercedes engine, the fact that Red Bull holds a 8/10th gap over all others will be a cause of concern for Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus, although fuel loads and engine cycles mask the true performance gap.
Two weeks ago in Spa, Red Bull set the pace in Free Practice, before Lewis Hamilton snatched pole position for Mercedes. Hamilton admitted he was helped that day by changing weather conditions and would have been unable to take pole should the session have been dry.
It is set to be dry for qualifying tomorrow, and although we do not know the respective fuel loads, anyone beating both Red Bulls is likely to take pole position.
Along with Lotus, the Milton Keynes squad showed strong race pace during the race simulations, showing very consistent lap times over the distance.
Free Practice for Lotus was of particular importance today as they assessed a long wheelbase E21 in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen. In hoping to see a distinct advantage between this and the car they have been using throughout 2013, Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean – somewhat amusingly – set identical lap times to take third and fourth positions in the session.
However, their single lap pace coupled with their race pace will satisfy the Lotus team as we edge in to the business end of the season. They would be very satisfied with third and fourth places tomorrow afternoon after many disappointing displays in qualifying.
But keeping the Mercedes pair at bay will be difficult as Lewis Hamilton hopes to make it five consecutive poles. Behind Fernando Alonso in fifth place today, Hamilton headed Nico Rosberg as the Mercedes’ ended the day in sixth and seventh places.
Mercedes will be in contention for the front-row tomorrow but had a low-key afternoon session. Hamilton topped this morning’s FP1 but the onus turned to perfecting the car in race trim this afternoon.
The top ten was completed by Felipe Massa and the McLaren pair of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez.
Massa will be keen to match the pace of Alonso this weekend, as any lack in performance on his part will be quickly pointed out by the Tifosi and the Ferrari heads which will be making an appearance during the weekend.
For McLaren, who hold a four point lead over Force India in the Constructors’ Championship battle for fifth place, their pace relative to the teams above was encouraging as Button lapped 4/10ths slower than Raikkonen in third.
Force India reserve driver, James Calado, completed his first competitive session in Formula One in FP1, lapping within half a second of Paul Di Resta.
He hopes to be back in the car for Friday practice in Abu Dhabi.
ITALIAN GRAND PRIX, Monza, Practice
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m24.453s 39
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m25.076s +0.623s 39
3. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m25.116s +0.663s 36
4. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m25.116s +0.663s 40
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m25.330s +0.877s 38
6. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m25.340s +0.887s 39
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m25.367s +0.914s 42
8. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m25.519s +1.066s 29
9. Jenson Button McLaren 1m25.532s +1.079s 42
10. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m25.627s +1.174s 39
11. Paul di Resta Force India 1m25.830s +1.377s 40
12. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m25.888s +1.435s 40
13. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m26.028s +1.575s 37
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m26.138s +1.685s 36
15. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m26.224s +1.771s 32
16. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1m26.385s +1.932s 43
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m26.599s +2.146s 39
18. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m27.198s +2.745s 44
19. Max Chilton Marussia 1m27.548s +3.095s 30
20. Charles Pic Caterham 1m27.696s +3.243s 37
21. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m27.771s +3.318s 38
22. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m28.057s +3.604s 32