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Friday Sessions: Ferrari still playing catch-up despite fastest laps on Friday

MONTREAL -- Montreal offered up the tightest Friday practice session of the season, with just under a second splitting Charles Leclerc in first place and Lance Stroll in 10th, while the top three were separated by just 0.134s. Ferrari held a 0.134s advantage over Valtteri Bottas' Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton finished his session in the wall.

So is this the turning point in the season Ferrari was hoping for? Based on all the data we saw Friday, not quite.

The anomalies compared to recent Friday practice sessions were very much the performances of the Mercedes and the Red Bulls, and not that of Ferrari. Ferrari's pace was good, and showed some promise over recent rounds, but there are several indications there is more to come from its two biggest rivals over the rest of the weekend.

Hamilton's mistake came after he lost the rear of his car going through Turn 9 and meant he did not set a quick time on soft tyres to compare with the Ferraris and his teammate. Meanwhile, Bottas' lap in the sole remaining Mercedes was scrappy. He locked up on the approach to Turn 10, sailed wide of the apex of the corner and then opted against attacking the kerbs in the final chicane with his usual aggression. Put simply, there was more lap time in the car.

"The car feels strong, but we have some work to do on the balance; the car became more difficult to drive with the changes we made for FP2, but it also felt a little quicker," Bottas said after the session. "From Ferrari's straight line speeds it looks like they ran pretty high engine modes, but we need to see if there's anything we can do better for FP3, what we can do for tomorrow.

"The main thing is that I felt really good in the car both in the long runs and the short runs, so that's why I'm looking forward to qualifying."

Assuming Bottas irons out the errors, he will likely find the 0.134s that went missing to the Ferraris around the lap. Then there is also the question of how much more power is locked away in Mercedes' engine upgrade when it get turns up to its most powerful engine mode in qualifying. The team is playing it down, but a significant amount of hard work has gone into it at Mercedes' engine base in Brixworth.

"We hope it's a tiny bit better than what we had before in terms of specification, but the biggest difference is just that it's a fresh unit," team boss Toto Wolff said. "The other one has had quite some high mileage.

"With mature regulations it becomes more and more difficult to extract pure lap time performance out of the engines. You're trying to find a bit more reliability, maybe run a bit harder, longer, but you are not finding these kind of big jumps that we used to see in past years."

Sebastian Vettel, who finished the session second fastest -- just 0.074s off Ferrari teammate Leclerc -- appeared downbeat after the session and remains convinced Mercedes still has the quicker car.

"We are not the fastest," he said. "I know that in terms of the result it looks like we are this afternoon, but I think there is still quite a reasonable gap to Mercedes.

Asked where he was losing time, he added: "Corners, just like the other races. We will see where we end up tomorrow -- today was not the most transparent session with other people running into problems, but also the car feels not yet the way I want it."

But for all the talk of Mercedes' engine upgrade in Canada, it should be noted that Ferrari fitted new turbochargers and MGU-Hs to its cars in Montreal. The upgrades have been added without the same song and dance as the Italian team's engine upgrade in Spain, but just as we expect to see the best of the Phase Two Mercedes power unit on Saturday afternoon, the true performance of the Ferrari's latest upgrade will also emerge this weekend.

Outside the top two teams, Red Bull appeared to struggle while Carlos Sainz starred in the McLaren. Sainz's best effort was just 0.376s off Leclerc and good enough to take fourth place, 0.380s ahead of the next midfield car of Kevin Magnussen in fifth. However, it should be noted that it was set later in the session than most, which will have offered an advantage as track conditions improved throughout FP2.

But as impressive as Sainz's lap seems, it also requires some context. The fastest cars from the midfield battle at the last two rounds (Toro Rosso in Monaco and Haas in Spain) were also under 0.4s off the fastest Ferrari in FP2, so while the McLaren was relatively high up the standings, it was actually Mercedes and Red Bull that were out of position. Assuming both teams return to their normal levels of performance on Saturday, Sainz and McLaren will drop to from the dizzying heights Friday's sessions promised, albeit in a solid position to lead the midfield battle.

Long-run pace

The long runs hint at a Mercedes advantage continuing into Sunday, but again the picture is incomplete thanks to Hamilton's accident. Car 44 didn't make it back on track after its contact with the wall, and Hamilton's absence from the session meant Bottas completed an extended heavy-fuel run on soft and hard compound tyres. All drivers experienced high levels of degradation on the soft tyre as they struggled to keep rear tyre temperatures under control, but the Mercedes still appeared to have a raw pace advantage over the Ferrari.

Bottas' average lap time over a seven lap run on the softs was a 1:17.293 compared to Vettel's 1:18.661 on the same compound. Such a discrepancy is likely to be down to a combination of fuel load and traffic for the Ferrari, but even so Vettel's sudden drop off into the 1:19s after just five laps will be a concern.

"The tyres didn't last very long, the very soft compound," the Ferrari driver said. "Overall I think it was not so bad but we certainly need to improve if we want to put the car in a very good position for Sunday's race."

Leclerc focused on the medium tyre on his long run, offering no direct comparison with Bottas' Mercedes, although his seven-lap average on the more durable rubber was a much more competitive 1:17.443 (and 1:17.939 over the full 15 laps). Bottas also put in a solid 1:17.424 average over his 18 lap run on the hards, suggesting teams will try to limit their time on the softs if track conditions remain hot on Sunday and shift onto the mediums and hards.

Either way, Mercedes appears to have the edge in Canada, even if it is not as extreme as it was at the last two rounds in Spain and Monaco.