SILVERSTONE, Great Britain -- In theory, the Silverstone circuit should be the perfect circuit for this year's Mercedes. Fast, flowing corners and long straights play to the emerging strengths of the W11, meaning, on paper at least, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas should be in a race of their own on Sunday.
However, where it mattered on Friday, on a scorching 50 degrees Celsius track, there were signs that Mercedes' rivals might have closed the gap ahead of this weekend's Briitsh Grand Prix.
Racing Point's Lance Stroll finished the day fastest, while Bottas could only manage third and Hamilton ended up fifth behind the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc. The top five positions were occupied by four different teams, covered by just 0.3s, and didn't even include Mercedes' closest rival at the first three rounds, Max Verstappen.
So can we expect more of the same over the rest of the weekend?
The rise of Racing Point
Stroll's lap was undoubtedly impressive and was mainly thanks to a strong final sector, which saw him gain 0.2s or more over the entire field. We've known since pre-season testing that the Racing Point is a quick car and it seems as though the Silverstone circuit suits its strengths -- as you might expect a car that draws so much inspiration from last year's Mercedes (the 2019 British Grand Prix winner) to do so.
Underlining the Racing Point's prowess in that sector was new teammate Nico Hulkenberg's lap. A little over 24 hours before setting that lap he had no idea he would be racing at Silverstone this weekend, but with no testing, an overnight seat-fit at the team's factory across the road and a quick familiarisation with the car's complex steering wheel, he finished his second session back behind the wheel in seventh fastest.
But as impressive as Racing Point's performance was, Mercedes' apparent lack of pace was the biggest anomaly on Friday. Compared to the rest of the field, the pink cars were more or less where you might expect, but Mercedes mixing it with them was not in the script.
Followers of Friday practice sessions this year will remember that a similarly hot practice day at the Styrian Grand Prix resulted in Mercedes struggling for performance relative to Red Bull, only to turn the situation around when it cooled down on Sunday. So could it simply be that hot weather doesn't suit the W11 and the car will come back into the expected window of performance later in the weekend when Silverstone's mini-heatwave abates?
"There doesn't appear to be anything wrong with the car, and it's the same basic aero package, so we'll probably end up concluding that we've not adapted to the very hot conditions here as well as some others," Mercedes chief engineer Andrew Shovlin said. "Valtteri seemed happier with his car than Lewis but both feel that the tyres are running hot and that's making the car a bit of a handful at times on low and high fuel.
"It's quite a balancing act in terms of how you respond because we're expecting cooler weather tomorrow and need to be careful not to overreact. This car is competitive when we land it in the right window, and we've got a bit of time this evening and another session in the morning to work out how to do that. Hopefully we can finish tomorrow a bit higher up the timesheets."
Hamilton's issues seem a little bit more deep-rooted than Bottas'.
A look at Bottas' lap indicates lost time behind Antonio Giovinazzi in Maggots and Becketts and further traffic in the final sector cost him a solid tenth of a second. Combined with the likelihood of Racing Point running its engine in a higher mode, Bottas probably had the performance locked away to finish the day fastest. But Hamilton's struggle -- 0.307s off Stroll's pace -- appeared a little more genuine, even if he insisted there were no problems so big that they couldn't be solved overnight.
"Quite a difficult day to be honest," he said. "I think it's always windy here, which is a good thing about this track, wind in different directions, but it made it tricky today with the car.
"The balance is not as good as I'd like. We'll just work on it tonight and see if we can figure it out. It's not a disaster but it's definitely been a hard day of driving."
The true threat
A clearer indicator of Mercedes' true pace was in the race simulations towards the end of the session, in which it held a clear advantage over Racing Point. On comparable heavy-fuel runs on the hard tyre, Stroll was on average 0.6s per lap off the pace of Hamilton in the Mercedes. That falls more into line with the gap we have come to expect to Mercedes at the front of the field, albeit with signs of a tidy little improvement by Racing Point this weekend.
But while Racing Point's one-lap pace may have flattered to deceive during Friday practice, Red Bull's did the opposite. Alex Albon set the second fastest time, 0.090s off Stroll, before ending his session in the barriers at Stowe. Unfortunately for Red Bull that not only resulted in a sizable overnight repair job, it also meant Verstappen, who is usually several tenths faster than Albon, failed to set a clean lap.
But look at Verstappen's long-run averages and a different story emerges. Bottas and Verstappen completed similar medium tyre runs and their averages were split by as little as 0.015s per lap. That's more in line with the picture that emerged from the hot Styrian Grand Prix practice sessions three weeks ago, adding weight to the theory that Mercedes struggles in extreme temperatures.
However, a further explanation of Red Bull's improvement can be gleaned from overlays of the high-fuel and low-fuel runs of Bottas and Verstappen, which tended to show the Red Bull gaining around 0.3s in power-sensitive sections of the track. At the first three rounds we have seen Mercedes hold more engine performance in reserve than its rivals on a Friday afternoon, and so it will likely have what it takes to edge ahead in qualifying and the race when it turns its engine up to comparable power levels to Red Bull.
Combined with cooler conditions over the coming days and the smart money remains firmly on Mercedes.