The opening day of practice on Friday presented a puzzling enigma to the Mercedes driver, George Russel, who found it odd due to the significantly low grip available. After concluding the second practice in fifth position for Mercedes, he registered a pace 0.6 seconds slower than the fastest set by Max Verstappen. He recalled the experience as being quite unorthodox.
Russel suggested that the newly installed asphalt on Turns 3, 4, and 7 was not acting expectedly. “There seems to be a huge amount of tyre degradation,” he stated, noting the bizarre circumstances in Suzuka. His high regard for the world-class racing circuit struggled to reconcile with its current state; the disintegrating tarmac and dynamic vehicle slides gave the drivers an unusual sensation.
Strangely, these anomalous phenomena are thought to contribute to the considerable tyre wear and tear. Pirelli, having brought to Japan its most robust compounds expected to yield low degradation rates, had initially planned for a one-stop. However, Russell believes an upgrade to two-stops may be necessary given the current conditions, possibly even more.
“We go to tracks like Jeddah or Melbourne, on this new Tarmac,” he observed. “It is really high grip.” He contrasted these with Suzuka’s situation suggesting, “the tyre degradation probably looks closer to a three-stop at the moment than it is a one-stop.” His projection, however, predicates a two-stop for all come Sunday.
Despite the perplexing conditions, Russell’s impression of his Mercedes car’s performance was surprisingly upbeat, placing Mercedes amongst the top competitors, hot-heels behind Red Bull. “It was a half reasonable day,” he expressed appreciatively. “Red Bull are back to the normal ways,” he said. Noting Red Bull‘s impressive pace, he believes that Mercedes is still a strong contender, “We’re not too far from P2.”
Standing in contrast to Russell’s optimism stands his Mercedes team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, who experienced a more challenging day with “A real struggle out there.” Hamilton ended the day’s run noticeably behind at 14th position. “So it’s working away, trying to fix the car, fix the balance.”
Hamilton did not deny the problems facing the W14 model, particularly in high-speed corners. He realized the need for the car to hit its sweet spot and control tyre overheating. “But we’ll work on it overnight and try to turn it around for tomorrow. But we definitely won’t be winning this weekend.”