Max Verstappen wore a smile on his face on his way back from his race car to the Formula 1 paddock. Fastest after the second practice session for the Monaco Grand Prix (Sunday, 15 p.m. / live on Sky and in the FAZ.NET Formula 1 ticker) in his Red Bull. The short walk from the pit lane to the motorhome of the world champion team was easy. Especially since it was only in the second practice session on Friday afternoon that the champion got into gear appropriately in his sense and came to the front.

Anno Hecker

Editor in charge of sports.

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On other race tracks, such a Friday time is not particularly familiar when calculating a Grand Prix forecast. But this much can be said: The Verstappen/Red Bull combination will also be the benchmark for the fight for pole position on Saturday in the Principality. But the two-time champion from the Netherlands wants to look around, at least keep an eye on the backers. On Friday, the son of the city appeared symbolically in his rear-view mirror.

"Let's see if we can squeeze even more juice out of the car"

Charles Leclerc finished second in the Ferrari, just 65 thousandths of a second longer for the city tour of around 3.3 kilometres. Followed by Carlos Sainz in the second Ferrari, also beaten by a razor-thin margin of 0.107 seconds. His compatriot Fernando Alonso (4th) is considered a candidate for a coup, 0.220 seconds behind in the Aston Martin. "I'm going to be more aggressive," said the veteran a few weeks before his 43rd birthday, "like no other race." Monaco, where the tax artists leave the casino on the right in a rush of speed, is worth a risky investment.

Mercedes has put a lot into the black Silver Arrow in recent weeks and months. Money, but above all brainpower in the attempt to give the W14 a shape that will advance it and its pilots. Maybe even on a par with Aston Martin and Ferrari. After the storm disaster in Emilia Romagna last week and the cancellation of the Grand Prix in Imola, the former series world champion presented his B-version at the foot of the palace: rounder, bulbous on the sides, equipped with new front suspension and new underbody, sent on the race trip with the hope that the conversion would lead to acceleration.

The atypical Monaco circuit is not exactly a testing ground for validating its suitability for everyday use. But the engineers also wanted to exorcise the nervousness of the rear end from the 2023 model, uncontrollable deflections. Where, if not in Monaco, at least the predictability of a highly bred racing car with a weight of almost 800 kilograms at 1000 hp is worth its weight in gold. Because the necessary approach to the crash barriers, for example in the Tabac curve or the swimming pool passage, is at most centimetres. Hamilton drove "only" half a second slower than Verstappen. But Monaco suggests year after year a densification of the field of drivers, this time 0.7 seconds up to and including twelfth, George Russell in the second Mercedes.

This is solely due to the short round. Hamilton let it be known on the radio that man could probably do more if the machine allowed it: "Damn," he shouted, "I can't go much faster." That's why the B version doesn't have to be a failure. Only before the Grand Prix in Barcelona in just over a week's time will it become clear what is in the conversion. "Monaco is not the right place to test and improve, but the car generally felt good," said Hamilton, "it's a shame we weren't as close as I had hoped at the end of practice, but I definitely felt the improvements. Let's see if we can squeeze more juice out of the car."

The chance to gain points and prestige in Monte Carlo with courage and desire for a dangerous approach pushes the drivers to the limit. Monaco winners join a virtual club like the winners of the Kitzbühel ski downhill. But sometimes it's all about staying away from anything that coldly deforms the good car. Nico Hulkenberg, even with the greatest magic at the wheel, will not catapult his Haas into the winning zone. In 15th place, he was one second behind. Colleague Sainz, on the other hand, is within striking distance of the Ferrari like Leclerc.

Verstappen warned of the Scuderia in Saturday's qualifying with a view to approaching the limit. "Your car looks more drivable. We're going to need something more if we want to stay ahead of them." Unless the competition misjudges itself by a few centimeters. Sainz touched the track barrier at the beginning of the swimming pool passage, the wishbone of the right front wheel tore out of its anchorage and so the Ferrari rushed unsteerably into the barrier at the exit of the corner. Nothing happened to the Spaniard, the car is repairable. "The track," says Alonso, "doesn't forgive the slightest mistake."