Mercedes love the Russian Grand Prix having won it for the past four years. They go into this race with clear leads at the top of both championships and it’s going to take a mighty effort from Sebastian Vettel to stay in title contention.
Drivers – 281 Lewis Hamilton 241 Sebastian Vettel
Constructors – 452 Mercedes 417 Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel has it all to do if he’s to win the world title and his Russian weekend got off to a good start as he finished fastest in the first practice session. 150 points left to be won and he’s 40 behind Hamilton so can’t lose much more ground. He was 0 05 seconds ahead of Max Verstappen in second and 0.33 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton in third.
Vettel was using a faster tyre than the British driver. With the gap between the hyper-soft tyres Vettel was using and Hamilton’s soft tyre, expected to between one and two seconds, it looked like advantage Mercedes. Hamilton won’t want to be running wide as he did here, but it was a slippery track surface.
Hamilton wasn’t the only driver to have problems with two future stars struggling. Charles LeClerc, who will be with Ferrari next year, went off the track and Lando Norris, who was standing in for Fernando Alonso as he bids to get more experience before racing for them full-time next season ran wide at Turn Five but avoided the barriers. He ended the session 13th fastest, three places ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne in the other McLaren.
Fourth fastest was the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas with Daniel Ricciardo fifth and Esteban Ocon who saw his Force India record a faster time than Kimi Raikkonen who was seventh fastest in his Ferrari. Kevin Magnussen was eighth (he and Romain Grosjean will both be driving for Haas again next year) with Nico Hulkenberg in ninth and tenth going to Antonio Giovinazzi who was the other Sauber driver for this session.
It’s not going to be a great weekend for Red Bull though with both Ricciardo and Verstappen having to start at the back of the grid on Sunday after using too many engine parts. They have new Renault engines for this weekend. It’s a big weekend for penalties with both Toro Rosso cars (upgraded Honda engines this weekend) and Fernando Alonso also starting at the back for the same reason.
It was a Mercedes 1-2 in the second practice session with Lewis Hamilton 0.199 seconds ahead of Valtteri Bottas. The Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo filled third and fourth. It wasn’t such a good session for Sebastian Vettel who could only manage fifth spot and was 0.543 seconds behind Hamilton. He had a spin late on in the practice session and can’t afford any mistakes like that on Sunday.
Sixth fastest was Kimi Raikkonen who was nearly half a second behind Vettel. In seventh was the Force India of Sergio Perez with Pierre Gasly in eighth, Estaban Ocon in ninth and the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson tenth.
It’s looking good then for Mercedes who have won this race for the past four seasons. They definitely have an advantage over Ferrari and with the Red Bulls starting at the back of the grid, it could be a prosperous weekend for Mercedes.
Qualifying is going to be even more important tomorrow with overtaking difficult on this track. I’ll be back tomorrow with a report on how that gets on, till then enjoy your racing.
By Steve Ashfield for Pillow Motor Sport