Monaco looked resplendent as Friday practice got underway on perhaps the most famous racing circuit of them all. And it delivered a tasty series of lap times to suggest we have at least three teams – maybe even four – in with a shout of taking pole position.

    Ferrari hold the edge over Red Bull on one-lap pace

    Ask anyone in the F1 paddock and they will tell you that when it comes to preparing the car for Monaco, the focus is on qualifying pace because a good grid slot is so important on a track where it is very, very challenging to overtake.

    FP2: Verstappen leads Leclerc while Sainz crashes during ultra-close second practice in Monaco

    Ferrari have been pretty sharp in this metric this year (with their pace dropping dramatically when fuel is dumped in for race day) and they continued that form into Monaco, with Carlos Sainz the stronger of the two drivers – until, that is, he crashed at the end of FP2.

    The Spaniard looked hooked up from the first lap on Friday and seemed to have the edge in the last two sectors of the lap. Charles Leclerc wasn’t as happy, with the Monegasque having to bail out several times – but escaping unscathed each time.

    Ferrari have around 0.08s on Red Bull based on our qualifying data. That’s hardly anything around here – but if they can maintain that into Saturday, getting a clean lap at ultimate pace makes them very strong contenders for pole position.

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    Red Bull start Monaco weekend on the back foot

    Red Bull have been the class of the field so far in 2023, the reigning world champions winning all five races, with championship leader Max Verstappen finishing every Grand Prix inside the top two – but they weren’t in a league of their own based on Friday practice.

    Both Verstappen and team mate Sergio Perez were unhappy with the balance of the car, with the ride height an area they know they improved through the day but have to work harder on overnight.

    READ MORE: ‘We need more to stay ahead’ – Verstappen wary of Ferrari and Aston Martin threat despite topping first day in Monaco

    Even with that bumpy day, the RB19 – the monstrous car that it is – was still second fastest in qualifying trim and fastest of all in the long runs.

    They were quicker in slow and medium corners, too, according to the numbers we gathered, so while they were pipped by Ferrari based on our data, it’s likely they will be pretty confident they can make gains overnight to stick one if not both cars on the front row.

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    Aston Martin are in the fight for pole

    Aston Martin have moved to play down their expectations for this weekend, but it was impossible to miss the quiet confidence bubbling away in the team as they knew this circuit suits their car, especially when double world champion Fernando Alonso is at the wheel.

    And so it proved on Friday, with Alonso looking like he was on rails around the streets of the Principality. The Spaniard said the car felt easy to drive and he was so happy with the day’s events, he couldn’t resist saying he reckons Aston will be one of the candidates for pole.

    READ MORE: Alonso expects Aston Martin to be ‘one of the candidates’ for Monaco pole after ‘fun’ Friday

    That’s another huge step forward for a team who are making waves in F1 right now. They are third best in our pace rankings, around 0.3s off the pace.

    But Alonso, in the zone, will fancy his chances of eradicating that deficit and getting himself into the best seat in the house for Sunday.

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    Mercedes appear to have made a step forward

    Mercedes’ long-awaited update hit the track for the first time on Friday – and the pace looked so good for Lewis Hamilton in FP1, the seven-time world champion thought “wow, maybe we are looking pretty good”.

    They dropped back in the second session and while they are fourth in the pecking order – roughly where they have been all season – they are much closer to the rest of the pack in terms of lap time, at 0.44s off the pace.

    READ MORE: Hamilton hails ‘amazing day’ in Monaco as Mercedes get first glimpse of upgraded W14 out on track

    Was there more in the tank? Well, Hamilton reckons there was maybe two-tenths. Find that and they are in contention for the front couple of rows.

    Their race pace was strong, too, and while it won’t be that useful around here, it does bode well for future races on more traditional tracks.

    All in all, it was an encouraging day for the team, who will hope this is the first step in a revival that will lead to some more competitive days.

    FP2 Highlights: 2023 Monaco Grand Prix
    FP2 Highlights: 2023 Monaco Grand Prix

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