Christian Horner believes Mercedes may have been flattered by their Japanese Grand Prix FP2 1-2 finish due to the number of tyres they used.
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton had six tenths of a second to spare over third and fourth-placed Red Bull duo Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez in the second of two wet sessions as Formula 1 returned to Suzuka for the first time since 2019.
But whereas, when conditions had eased enough to do so, Red Bull used only one set of intermediate tyres for each driver, Mercedes unwrapped three.
That continual fresh rubber may have given the Silver Arrows a significant advantage, according to Red Bull team principal Horner, but may inconvenience them on race day if the grand prix also turns out to be wet.
Rain is forecast to be in the vicinity of the Suzuka circuit on Sunday, but there are mixed reports about what time it might fall – it could come along a little too late to affect the race.
“This track is very tough on tyres,” Horner told Sky F1. “We only ran one set of inters in that second session, I think Mercedes ran three.
“Definitely taking those extra sets of tyres, I think particularly in the first sector there’s a big advantage on a new set here. So today’s times probably aren’t that representative, but they are definitely in the mix, definitely looking competitive.
“I think Ferrari (sixth and seventh behind Kevin Magnussen’s Haas) are perhaps out of position as well, so I think the whole thing will just concertina a bit.
“I think our pace is reasonable – difficult to draw too many conclusions because very quickly you can see the front tyres are going off around here.
“A lot of the data for the guys to be looking at, but on the whole a pretty reasonable day.”
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Asked about set-up, given the changeable weather forecast throughout the weekend, Horner said: “It’s trying to find that compromise because tomorrow looks dry and Sunday looks maybe wet.
“So it’s trying to ensure you’ve got it somewhere of a halfway house, that you’ve got a reasonable amount of downforce on the car and you’ve picked a level that’s reasonable for both conditions and the same with the stiffness you choose.
“Those debates will be going on tonight to say where do you put the favouritism towards, is it grid position or the race.”
Verstappen has his second Drivers’ World Championship ‘match point’ at Suzuka after the first opportunity slipped by in Singapore last week when it was his team-mate Perez who triumphed.