Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton may be dominating the season so far but they didn’t have a great time in first practice at the Russian Grand Prix. It was the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen which posted the fastest time just 0.045 seconds ahead of the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton was third quickest but he went off the track not once, not twice but three times during the first practice session. He was still quicker than Sebastian Vettel who finished fastest but spun his Ferrari at Turn 16 towards the end of the session. If they both do that in Sunday’s race we’re in for a thriller. The track isn’t the easiest on the circuit due to its low-grip surface so it wasn’t too much of a surprise a few drivers found it difficult to stay on the track.
It was the Red Bull of Max Verstappen who finished in fourth but he wasn’t having a great time of it either with concerns about poor grip. He still managed to finish 0.06 seconds faster than team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
We’re still in the early stages of the season but it must seem an eternity to McLaren, especially Stoffel Vandoorne. He complained of his car having “no power” which is never exactly welcome is it? Even worse though when you are already on your fourth turbo and MGU-H. Between them Vandoorne (3) and Alonso (1) had four such failures in Bahrain and the problems are mounting for McLaren.
It was a Ferrari 1-2 in the second practice session and a much happier one for Sebastian Vettel. He finished fastest and was 0.263 seconds clear of Raikkonen. Valtteri Bottas finished third but was 0.67 seconds behind Vettel with Hamilton 0.039 seconds behind his team mate. With Vettel, already seven points clear of the British driver, Vettel must be thinking he has a great chance of extending that lead in Russia, particularly as Hamilton didn’t have an impressive race-simulation run. It might even be Bottas who is the main challenger this weekend as he put in a good performance on the long runs.
The Red Bulls were both over a second off the pace and there were engine problems for Verstappen so not too promising a Friday for them.
Having an even worse day was Stoffel Vandoorne. The problems he suffered in the first practice session meant a change of power-unit. He’s on his fifth turbocharger and fifth MGU-H so he’ll have a 15-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race. If it carries on like this there will be more and more penalties during the rest of the season. More dirty looks in the direction of Honda methinks. Fernando Alonso was 12th fastest in this session but 2.6 seconds behind Vettel.
Vettel may have had a good second practice session but he is still very wary of what Mercedes might achieve over the rest of the weekend. “On paper this looks like a Mercedes track and I am sure they did not show everything today.” In his view, the gap between Ferrari and Mercedes is “artificial.”
The former world champion might think it’s an “artificial” gap but the fact is Hamilton did have problems with his Mercedes on Friday. He aborted his first two attempts at a fast lap and had a far from error-free run in both sessions. Lewis described his day as “tricky” and wants Mercedes to “pick up some pace tomorrow.” The key for him is tyres so it looks like being a fascinating weekend.