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Is Racing Point really Mercedes' closest competitor in Austria?

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The world may be a very different place compared to four months ago, but it seems some things never change: Mercedes is still the team to beat in Formula One.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the reigning champions finished at the top of the timesheets after the first day of practice in Austria, but the margin of Mercedes' advantage was still alarming. Combined with Red Bull struggling to fulfill its preseason hype and Ferrari living up to its worst concerns, on the face of it the results of Friday practice made for depressing reading for everyone hoping for a true fight at the front.

So was this a true reflection of the competitive order -- with the Racing Point outpacing both Ferrari and Red Bull -- or will we see a closer battle emerge later this weekend?

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Is Red Bull in trouble?

Whichever way you cut it, Mercedes still has the fastest car. In all three sectors of the lap the all-black W11 was fastest, with Lewis Hamilton holding the advantage in sector one thanks to a tow between Turns 1 and 3, Valtteri Bottas fastest in sector two and Hamilton fastest again in sector three. Those fast sector times combined to build an advantage of 0.641s over Sergio Perez in the Racing Point, the fastest of Mercedes' competitors, and a 0.911s over the man we expected to challenge Mercedes this year, Red Bull's Max Verstappen.

But dig a little deeper into Friday's sessions and there are signs Red Bull fell well short of its true potential.

The first and most obvious sign was news that both drivers damaged their front wings on the exit kerb of Turn 6. The Red Bull Ring is known for its aggressive kerbs and the high-speed run between Turn 6 and Turn 7 encourages drivers to abuse them.

"The lap times didn't really say anything, because I broke my front wing on the fastest lap," Verstappen explained. "But we are, I think, confident.

"There are always things you can do better, but I think overall, it was a good day, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."

Up until the end of the second sector where Verstappen damaged his wing, the Red Bull was 0.388s slower than Hamilton -- a decent proportion of which can be accounted for by Hamilton's slipstream up to Turn 3. Still a comfortable margin, but also one that could be skewed in Mercedes favour by differences in fuel loads and engine settings. Although the world champions finished the day happy, there's still a suspicion that Red Bull was holding something back.

"It's difficult to say [if our advantage is as big as it looks]," Hamilton said after the session. "It's definitely looking good out there but you can never take too much from practice and if you look at some of the other teams they were maybe down on power modes or up on power modes or fuel or whatever it may be.

"So we'll take it with a pinch of salt, try and improve the car tonight, come back with it tomorrow."

The Pink Mercedes

In order to challenge Mercedes, Red Bull will have to get ahead of Racing Point first. There's always an assumption that when a midfield team breaks into the top six during Friday practice that it's due to other teams getting it wrong or holding something back. That assumption is based on plenty of past evidence, so it's still too early to welcome a Racing Point driver onto the third step of the podium, but it shouldn't take anything away from the job the team has done.

On every metric, the Racing Point looks quick and, given the strong performance we saw in testing in February, it's not a flash in the pan or circuit specific. For those not up to speed with Racing Point's 2020 car, the team has unashamedly copied Mercedes' championship winning 2019 machine. Its technical boss Andy Green has repeatedly stressed that it did so by taking visual clues from last year's Mercedes rather than any exchange of data, which would be against the rules, but the result is the unmistakable silhouette of the W10 and a very fast racing car.

Why Racing Point's 2020 car has been dubbed 'the pink Mercedes'

So far the tactic seems to be paying off, with Perez's impressive single-lap pace backed up by similarly competitive long-run pace. On both medium tyres, Perez was Mercedes' closest competitor over heavy-fuel runs and the gaps once the times were averaged out were actually slightly closer than the 0.6s gap on single-lap pace. But after the session, Perez was understandably more concerned about the cars behind him than the two ahead.

"We were a good half a second away [from Mercedes], and in such a small track, the Ferraris, the Red Bulls, the Renaults, the McLarens, are within a tenth from us, so it's not like we can get too excited," he said. "The margins are extremely close, so hopefully tomorrow we can put a great lap together in qualy."

Red Bull remains at the top of the list of teams likely to overhaul Racing Point later in the weekend, and there were already signs from the long runs that it will do just that. Verstappen's heavy-fuel running tended to start slower than Perez but showed promise towards the end, and on soft tyres he averaged a faster lap time by logging impressively quick laps later into the run.

Such anomalies could be explained by Verstappen cycling through engine modes in order to hide his pace early on while turning the engine up to get a feel for the car's true pace later in the run. Combined with Red Bull's capacity to crunch numbers back at the factory and make performance gains overnight, the smart money is still on Red Bull to line up behind Mercedes on the grid and be its closest competitor on Sunday.

What about Ferrari?

Although Ferrari finished the day with a faster lap time than Verstappen, fears that the Italian team has dropped the ball with this year's car appeared to hold true.

Sebastian Vettel was fourth fastest overall, 0.657s off Hamilton, giving the majority of his time away in sector one, which is made up of two relatively slow corners and a long straight. That tallies with Ferrari's disappointing straight-line speed in testing and, given the car is running the same aero and engine specification it used in February while its rivals have come with upgrades in both areas, it is likely to be a genuine weakness.

The long-run pace suggests it is slower than Racing Point in race conditions and it's hard to pinpoint an excuse or a silver lining like Red Bull's. Recent history tells us that it's not unusual for Ferrari to start a weekend slowly and up its pace over Saturday and Sunday, but it's clear the car is not where it should be. In fact, Charles Leclerc's average lap times over long runs were more in line with McLaren and Renault than Red Bull and Racing Point.

"We're lacking grip, we're lacking downforce compared to others, also a little bit down the straights, as our car is draggier than the others, so it's a mix of all these things," Vettel said.

"In terms of speed and competitiveness, I think it was an interesting day," he added. "We've seen we're not at the top and we've seen that Mercedes is very strong, as expected. And then there's a lot of stuff going on behind that, it's very tight. Let's see, tomorrow will be a big day, we'll try to be the leaders of whatever group there is behind."

The tight midfield pack means positions three to 12 are very difficult to predict from Friday's track running, but going purely on the long-run data available, the order appears to be Mercedes, Red Bull, Racing Point, Ferrari, Renault, McLaren. But allow for the fact that a small mistake in qualifying could leave some of those cars outside the top ten places on the grid, and the onus is very much on the drivers not to make mistakes.

If all of the chasing pack could find the half second they need to catch Mercedes, we'd be looking at a thrilling season opener. But on the face of it, Mercedes has the advantage and its traditional rivals, Red Bull and Ferrari, are scrapping to stay clear of an improved midfield pack.