Lewis Hamilton comes into this race 59 points clear at the top of the table, a position he could only have dreamed of a few races ago. The title could be won this weekend if he wins the US Grand Prix and Vettel fails to get a top five finish.
Conditions were wet at the start of the session and drivers didn’t run on slick tyres until after half an hour. The weekend couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for Lewis as he dominated the first practice session. His Mercedes finished a healthy 0.593 seconds quicker than the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel with the other Mercedes driven by Valtteri Bottas back in third.
Max Verstappen, who has just signed a new contract that will keep him at Red Bull until 2020, was fourth fastest. It’s not been all good news for him though. He may have that contract and a bit more cash in his pocket but the engine of his Renault is due to be given a new internal combustion engine and if that is true, then he’ll face a 20-place grid penalty.
McLaren had an up and down start to their weekend with Stoffel Vandoorne in fifth and Fernando Alonso a place behind. Their times were set on ultra-soft tyres with those finishing quicker than them on the super-soft tyres. It was a difficult session for Alonso whose McLaren had a hydraulic leak early in the session but then managed just one further lap before he had to head back to the pits.
Kimi Raikkonen was seventh with the Force India’s of Estaban Ocon and Sergio Perez filling eighth and ninth place respectively.
It’s not just Verstappen who is facing a grid penalty. Vandoorne has a five-place penalty for another new engine and it’s 20 for Nico Hulkenberg and 25 for debutant Brendan Hartley in his Toro Rosso who finished 12th in the first practice session.
It was more of the same later in the day with Lewis Hamilton quickest in second practice ahead of second placed Max Verstappen. It wasn’t a great session for Vettel who was back in third 0.524 seconds behind the championship leader. A spin at Turn 19 cost him time and his complaint this time around was that the front of his Ferrari “felt like jelly”. That led to some time in the pits and prevented him from any race preparation in the second half of the session with just one further lap possible before the session ended.
Fourth quickest was Valtteri Bottas with Daniel Ricciardo in fifth. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was back in sixth. Fernando Alonso had a smoother session and was seventh fastest.
Hamilton certainly isn’t expecting to be celebrating his fourth world title this year. He believes it’s “silly”, to believe Vettel will finish well down the field and expects Ferrari to provide a major challenge. With Vettel having been forced to retire in two of the last three races, that title celebration could yet happen on Sunday.
“It was a messy afternoon,” said Vettel. “Not an easy session, but the car is quick so we don’t need to worry.” Just whether he can have a better Saturday and Sunday remains to be seen with Hamilton looking in great form. I’ll be back tomorrow with a report on qualifying, till then enjoy your racing.