While newly-promoted Mercedes driver George Russell grabbed the headlines by topping both Friday sessions on his Mercedes debut, two rookie drivers were at the opposite end of the timesheets on their first day as Formula 1 race drivers.
Pietro Fittipaldi, filling in for the injured Romain Grosjean at Haas, was 18th fastest and Jack Aitken, who took Russell’s place at Williams, was 19th – the pair ahead of Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who did not set a time because of a driveshaft problem.
But given the machinery they were driving, that’s exactly where you would expect them to be as they felt their way in.
While Aitken at least has some experience of the Williams FW43 having driven it in FP1 in July’s Styrian Grand Prix, Fittipaldi had only simulator experience of the Haas VF-20 under his belt.
What’s more, while Aitken has been active in Formula 2, most recently competing in the Bahrain round for Campos Racing last weekend, Fittipaldi’s most recent racing outing was in Asian F3 at the Buriram circuit in Thailand in February.
Both did good jobs during Friday practice to lay the foundations for the rest of their debut weekends.
Both drivers were on track sharply in the first free practice session to rack up the laps during the first 40 minutes of the session on their first set of tyres.
Fittipaldi completed 18 laps on hard rubber, which included a series of push laps during a run of 17 laps after an initial installation lap.
He worked his way down to a time of 58.002s during this phase, just within a second of team-mate Kevin Magnussen.
Aitken used soft rubber for his 20 laps, setting a best time of 57.359s, which put him just over four-tenths off team-mate Nicholas Latifi.
It was a promising start for both, although their sessions soon unravelled thanks to damaging their tyres.
Aitken used hards for his second stint and set his best time of the session on his first flying lap – a 57.187s.
But on the next lap, he was a little too aggressive on the throttle coming out of the Turn 2 left-hander and spun through the gravel.
This ruined his tyres and he was restricted to a series of practice starts and pitstop practice during the rest of the session after returning to the pits.
Fittipaldi improved his fastest time to a 57.077s on his first push lap on his fresh set of softs. After a cooldown, he set a similar but fractionally slower time on his second attempt.
But after another cooldown, he went again and locked up the left-front tyre on the approach to Turn 5.
He had struggled a little on the entry to Turn 5 throughout the session and he immediately realised what he’d done, informing the team “I’ve destroyed this tyre” over the radio. He returned apologetically to the pits and could not run again.
Both missed out on track time as a result of the flatspots, with Fittipaldi restricted to 24 laps and Aitken 33, although the Williams driver’s tally was boosted by the eight slow laps he completed after the spin while practicing starts and pitbox visits.
Both drivers returned to action in FP2 and after the early running the focus inevitably turned to a qualifying simulation run using soft rubber.
They had identical qualifying simulation runplans, completing three push laps during this phase with their fastest at the first attempt.
“Tomorrow, I will make another step but slowly raise the volume” :: Pietro Fittipaldi
Fittipaldi was the faster of the two, setting a time of 56.110s. This was on a lap where he lost a little time to traffic through Turn 4 but was still good enough to put him 0.372s off Magnussen.
Aitken set a time of 56.260s, 0.476s off Latifi. This means both of the drivers made a good step after their FP1 mishaps and the pace deficit to the team’s regular drivers was very respectable.
As is normal in FP2, the qualifying simulation run was followed up by long runs, with both drivers racking up a significant number of laps. Fittipaldi completed a total of 56 in FP2, with Aitken managing two more.
Fittipaldi was just over half-a-second off Magnussen on long-run pace on mediums, with the gap about a tenth smaller on softs.
Aitken was closer to his team-mate, with two-tenths separating him from Latifi on softs before Williams split the tyre strategy.
WHAT THEY SAID
Fittipaldi admitted to being “a little sore” after racking up so many laps on his first time in F1 car for exactly one year having last driven for Haas in late-2019 testing in Abu Dhabi.
But he was satisfied with the progress he made, including with the operation of the car – although he did ask to be reminded several times what the shutdown procedure was on return to the garage.
“I felt pretty good with all the procedural stuff, that was the main focus, so I don’t make any mistakes and I felt really good with that, with the starts, with the pitstops,” said Fittipaldi.
“He was thrown in the deep end and you have to live with that” :: Guenther Steiner
“The only setback was in FP1, we had a lock-up which damaged my tyres so I couldn’t do any more running.
“But I kept my cool, went into FP2 and did all the running. We closed the gap, which is really good.
“Tomorrow, I will make another step but slowly raise the volume and push with everything when it counts in qualifying.”
Fittipaldi also admitted he did have a big moment in Turn 2 early in FP2 when the rear stepped out.
“I felt competitive and I had a couple moments with the car,’ said Fittipaldi. “There was one in the beginning of FP2 where coming out of Turn 2, I had a really big moment, it was like a whiplash on the rear.
“Tomorrow, we’ll make those adjustments with the car to suit myself, I’ll make my driving adjustments as well and come back tomorrow and put everything together.”
Aitken described Friday practice as a solid foundation, although he pointed to one-lap pace as the main area for gains as he has yet to find the peak of the tyre.
“I had a couple of slip-ups but nothing too major, got lots of laps under the belt and it’s a pretty solid foundation to build on when the fun starts tomorrow,” said Aitken.
“The first few laps in FP1 I was just remembering from when I did FP1 in Austria and it was all pretty familiar, I got up to speed fairly OK.
“There’s little bit of work to be done on one-lap pace, especially because it seems to be a really peaky tyre. It’s like one lap and then it’s gone, but the race run was pretty encouraging so pretty happy.”
WHAT THE TEAMS SAID
Fittipaldi attended last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix as Haas reserve, so despite never having driven the 2020 car he was fully-equipped and ready to jump in the car when his place was confirmed on Monday.
But as team principal Guenther Steiner explained, Fittipaldi was on a steep learning curve.
“The task was to go out there,” said Steiner after FP1. “He wasn’t in an F1 car for a year, just familiarise yourself with the car and just try to get the best out of it.
“Unfortunately on his second set of tyres, he locked up and flat-spotted a tyre and it wasn’t useable anymore, so we had to stop the session short for him, which is not ideal.
“But he was thrown in the deep end and you have to live with that.”
Later, Steiner was positive about Fittipaldi’s FP2 performance and said “the combination of the two sessions was good”.
Aitken was praised by the Williams team for the job he did having also made good progress throughout the day.
“We think his pace on the long runs was actually pretty competitive” :: Simon Roberts
Although Aitken was aware on Tuesday that he was likely to be making his grand prix debut this weekend, it wasn’t confirmed until the following day.
But unlike Russell’s move to Williams, Aitken already had all the required kit and a seat given his status as Williams reserve.
Yet despite having an FP1 appearance under his belt earlier this season, he faced a very different scenario today to his Austria appearance.
“It’s very different, an FP1 one and then getting yourself ready for race on Sunday are quite different things,” said Williams acting team principal Simon Roberts.
“Our strategy’s been take it one step at a time – ‘we know you can drive the car, we are confident and we’ll look after everything else’ was the message from us in a supportive way.
“So quite a steady programme for him. Nothing was done because it was Jack, we had a tyre programme to go through, we had a few test items and ran one and Nicholas ran the other, but that was just in the background and didn’t really affect the overall programme.
“Unfortunately, he spun on the prime tyre and flatspotted them, and that ended a long run on those tyres.
“So we just sat out for a while, waited for track to get quiet and then used that time to do practice starts and pitlane work and just getting used to all that kind of stuff.
“But I think he’s done a great job.
“I don’t know what people’s expectations were, but we just want to have a great time and get the best out of the car.
“We think his pace on the long runs was actually pretty competitive.”