PACE DEBRIEF: Leclerc quickest in all sectors, but Red Bull hold back pace with low engine mode

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Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc ended the opening day at the Monaco Grand Prix on top, having dominated the session in each sector and on every type of compound. F1Technical's Balazs Szabo delivers his pace debrief after Friday.

Charles Leclerc had a messy first session in Monaco as he ran over some debris that flew off Zhou Guanyu's Kick Sauber at Sainte Devote. The incident caused significant damage to the floor of Leclerc's SF-24, restricting him to a series of installation laps in the last ten minutes of Free Practice 1.

Ferrari did not change the floor on Leclerc's car between the two sessions, but managed to repair in a way that the SF-24 could operate normally. Leclerc did not hesitate to put in a series of quick laps both on the yellow-banded mediums and the soft tyres, displaying dominant pace all through the second one-hour session.

In fact, the Monegasque's fastest time was a 1m11.278s which was already quicker than last year’s pole time of 1m11.365s set by Max Verstappen. It was impressive to watch the Scuderia Ferrari driver improve on every run, while others seemed to struggle a bit more to find the limit in their cars. The five-time F1 race winner explained his eye-catching pace on Friday with the fact that he took more risks on the opening day, stating that he expects his rivals to come back on Saturday.

Behind the field-leading Ferrari driver, the pecking order was mixed and lap times were closed once again. Five different teams were represented in the top five in FP2, all covered by just 675 thousandths of a second, which showed how close the hierarchy is throughout the field. For the record, behind Leclerc were Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes, Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin, the Red Bull of Max Verstappen and Lando Norris in the McLaren.

Performance check

Confirming his dominant form on the opening day of action in Monaco, Leclerc was fastest of all in all three sectors. More crucially, the Monegasque enjoyed an advantage of almost two tenths of a second in all three track sections.

The two-time Monaco Grand Prix pole-sitter was exactly two tenths of a second quicker in the opening section of the Monaco track than second-quickest Lewis Hamilton, albeit he did not set this brilliant S1 time of 18.47s on his quickest lap, but on another that went away from him in the middle sector.

Sector 2 saw Leclerc record a time of 33.67s which was one and half a tenth quicker than what second-quickest Fernando Alonso managed. The last sector saw Leclerc beat Hamilton for the quickest S3 time by a tenth of a second.

Interestingly, Ferrari's Spanish driver Carlos Sainz was unable to keep up with his team-mate, struggling once again for outright pace just as he did in Imola a few days ago. The Spaniard was off the pace in all three sectors, but the opening part turned out to be his main weakness compared to Leclerc.

As for the reigning world champion team, Red Bull appeared to lack speed in Monaco. The reigning champion Max Verstappen stated that the issue was down to the bumps with which his RB20 can not cope.

"Every time that we went over a bump, the car lost a lot of lap time and on this track one small jump could result in you ending up against the wall. We are looking into a solution ahead of the weekend to sort this out. In general, the issue is a bit more difficult to solve in set up and it won’t be a quick fix but we are going to work on it overnight; we don’t expect miracles but are still looking ahead to tomorrow," said the Dutchman.

A tough opening day is not a surprise from Red Bull, and it does not mean anything as the previous race weekend in Imola showed. The Milton Keynes-based outfit struggled for the optimal balance on the opening day of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix only to come up with a much better setup on Saturday which then saw the Dutchman secure pole position and win the race on Sunday.

While the issues might be of different nature this time around as the initial problems in Imola were rather balance-specific with the RB20 lacking front grip, Red Bull might come back stronger today. The top speeds in the second practice back this theory as the RB20 was lacking top speed once again, indicating that the team used a significantly lower engine mode on the opening day.

Although engine power is less significant on the narrow streets of Monaco, Red Bull used its power unit in such a low power mode that they could gain as much as three tenths of a second to Ferrari as soon as they start to operate their engines in the usual more powerful mode.

Considering his best sector times, Verstappen was not too far off Leclerc in Sector 1 and 3, but he did not feel comfortable in the middle part of the track, and this meant that he lost almost four tenths of a second in this section alone.

Tyre performance

Unsurprisingly, Formula One's sole tyre manufacturer Pirelli brought the softest compounds to Monaco with the C5 serving as the soft, the C4 as the medium and the C3 as the hard rubber.

As is often the case in Monaco free practice, drivers tried to do as many laps as possible to build up confidence dealing with the unique challenges. Between them, the 20 drivers covered 1180 laps, or almost four thousand kilometres, 3,937.66 to be precise. The most popular compound was the C4 (600 laps), followed by the C3 (314) and then the C5 (266).

Speaking of the day, Pirelli's Chief engineer Simone Berra said: “The day on track that’s just finished here in Monaco was a very busy one, with two hours of free practice for the Formula 1 teams, while the Formula 2 and Formula 3 categories, for which we are also the sole tyre supplier, put on an exciting show in qualifying.

"As for Formula 1, free practice did not throw up any great surprises. Here, it’s important for the drivers to lap continuously to get into a rhythm and find those last centimetres of track that represent the ideal line through the corners.

"From a purely technical point of view, we saw the track get quicker and quicker with each passing lap and that could also be an important factor in qualifying, because conditions could change significantly from the beginning to the end of each phase of the session.

"The fact that today’s best time is already almost a tenth quicker than last year’s pole is a sign of the progress made with this generation of car, given that the tyres have remained pretty much the same as last year’s.”