Max Verstappen said he believed it would be difficult to beat Ferrari in a straight fight in the dry after Friday practice at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Red Bull driver’s title rival Charles Leclerc was top, with Verstappen fourth, 0.283secs behind.
Verstappen was also headed by the out-of-position McLaren of Lando Norris and the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz.
“They are a bit ahead. It will be hard to beat that but we will try to close the gap,” Verstappen said.
Rain is forecast for qualifying on Saturday, though, which could change the competitive picture.
“(We’ll) see what the weather will give us tomorrow,” Verstappen said. “In the dry, we can’t compete so maybe in the rain we can. Who knows?”
Verstappen was on pole in the last wet qualifying session in Canada last month, although Leclerc was not in the picture in Montreal because of a grid penalty for using excessive engine parts.
Verstappen, who leads Leclerc by 63 points with 10 races remaining after the Monegasque crashed out of the lead in France last weekend, said he had always suspected the tight and twisty Hungaroring to be a difficult race for Red Bull.
“A bit tricky as expected around here,” Verstappen said, “just trying to find a balance from high to low speed. Sometimes it worked a bit better, sometimes a bit more tricky. A bit of work to do.”
Leclerc was a similar margin ahead of Verstappen on both qualifying- and race-simulation runs.
As befits their season so far, Ferrari’s session was not without its problems, however.
Leclerc had to curtail his race-simulation run after one lap when he felt a problem with the engine at the start of it, complaining of a lack of torque in fourth gear.
He was told to pit, and he asked: “Is there a problem?” “We’re checking it,” his engineer said.
But after taking to the track a few minutes later, he had a significant pace advantage over Verstappen, Leclerc as much as 0.3secs ahead on average with both running the medium tyre. Sainz’s first run was on the soft tyres and could not be compared.
Positive signs at McLaren
Norris played down the significance of being second fastest, saying McLaren had their engine running in a high power mode than others.
But he said he was encouraged by the car’s pace and that it was performing better than it had in recent races.
“It’s good,” Norris said. “The car is performing very well from the off. I felt comfortable.
“Today is a bit of an over-show of our performance because we’re turned up more than other people have.
“We’re definitely not fighting for Ferrari and Red Bull positions. But we’re definitely in a good place.
“But it’s still just Friday and the weather’s meant to change tomorrow. Things at the moment are a little bit better than they were, so that’s a positive.”
Norris was 0.217secs slower than Leclerc, and 0.014secs quicker than Sainz, who edged Verstappen by 0.052secs.
Mercedes appeared to be struggling. George Russell was their quickest driver in eighth place, 0.910secs slower than Leclerc and behind McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel.
Lewis Hamilton was even worse off, in 11th place and 1.102secs behind Leclerc, and complaining the car was “unstable” on his race-simulation run.
What’s going on at Mercedes?
Hamilton, who has won in Hungary eight times through his career, said it had been “a difficult day”.
“The car’s a bit of a struggle,” he said. “It’s crazy how it swings so much from track to track, just set-up, trying to figure out how we can get working.
“It’s a little bit loose and it’s not doing what we want it to do. For some reason this track it’s not working that well. But once we got it right, the gap (to the front) is about the same as last week, about a second.”
But Russell said that Mercedes had been running a slightly different programme from normal trying to learn about the car.
“Definitely not our smoothest Friday so far,” Russell said. “Bit of a strange one because we think it’s going to be wet for qualifying and conditions on Sunday are going to be drastically different, so we were trying a few things with the car, using it as a bit of a test session.
“But there’s no use of that at all for the rest of the weekend, so even though it was a very tough day, I think it’s probably been a productive one.
“(We were) just trying things to learn more things about the car and at the expense of trying to get the most out of the lap time, more just trying to gather information to help us longer term.
“We were definitely little bit further away than we would have expected. A couple of issues here and there but tomorrow will be a totally new day and Sunday will also be a very different day.”
The two most intriguing upgrades were at Aston Martin and Haas.
Aston Martin have introduced a design that reintroduces a form of end-plate. The 2022 regulations were written in a way that intended to prevent these parts of the rear wing being used, replacing them with a curved transition from the sides of the wing to the downforce-creating elements.
This was part of a package of changes to reduce turbulence and make it easier for cars to follow each other.
The other notable upgrade was on the Haas, which features an extensive package of changes and has been dubbed the ‘white Ferrari’ for its similarity to the car that has been the qualifying king this season.