Ferrari looked to have the edge on Mercedes after the Practice sessions from the Russian Grand Prix did not go well for the Brackley based team as both Ferrari drivers showed strong pace
Free Practice 1
In FP1, Kimi Raikkonen led the Maranello charge ahead of the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. That top two was surprising in itself. What was doubly surprising was the gap from Raikkonen to Hamilton in P3. Raikkonen’s 1:36.074s was just 0.045s ahead of Bottas, but Hamilton was over 6 tenths off the pace of the Ferrari. The British driver seemed to struggle to get temperature into the ultrasofts and had a very scruffy session, going off the track several times in the hour and a half long session. Sebastian Vettel was in P5 and had just as bad a session, although his FP2 would be much better. The Red Bull’s of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were 4th and 6th respectively, and Christian Horner expects them to line up 5th and 6th for the race due to their power disadvantage. The gap they have over Williams, Force India and the other midfielders should see them in race limbo once again, firmly behind Ferrari and Mercedes, but ahead of the midfield scrap too.
The Force India’s did look strong however, with Sergio Perez, Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon all behind the top three times. Both teams have been on the podium in Russia and could well be a thorn in Red Bull’s side this weekend, particularly Williams. Toro Rosso were in the mix as well as Renault and Haas. McLaren were 13th with Fernando Alonso and 17th with Stoffel Vandoorne, the latter having a 15-place-grid penalty for an MGU-K change, his fifth of the season after only three completed Grand Prix weekends. Sergey Sirotkin drove in place of Nico Hulkenburg for Renault but stopped on track without setting a time. The two Sauber’s propped up the cars that did set a time, both cars of course running the 2016 specification Ferrari power unit.
Free Practice 2
FP2 again saw the Ferrari’s top of the time sheets, and Sebastian Vettel recovered from his scruffy FP1. He used the ultrasoft tyres to good effect, posting a 1:34.120s, 0.263 quicker than Raikkonen. It’s premature, but the last Ferrari 1-2 in qualifying was back in France 2008, so achieving it here would really confirm the Ferrari renaissance without doubt. Bottas was faster than Hamilton, but over six tenths behind Vettel. Both Mercedes could not get their tyres into the right operating window and their best laps came after they had already had several goes at setting a fast time. Toto Wolff admitted that Ferrari seem a lot more able to switch their tyres on quickly. Vettel accused Mercedes of “sandbagging” only for Hamilton to say “we never sandbag”. It is true, but the Mercedes team do seem to have a magic switch when it comes to Q3, they’re usually able to find a few more tenths around the lap. The Red Bulls, led by Verstappen, were 5th and 6th as expected. Verstappen’s session unfortunately ended twenty minutes early after he stopped on track and reported he was “out of power”. It was later confirmed as an oil pressure problem.
Massa, Hulkenburg, Magnussen and Perez rounded out the top ten. The midfield battle looks ever tighter with 7th placed Massa to 13th placed Jolyon Palmer all covered within a second of each other. Stroll was P19 but did not run the ultrasoft tyre, explaining his lack of pace. The Sauber’s were again at the back of the pack however the two McLaren’s did both move up a place each compared to their FP1 times. Sadly though the lack of power is entirely evident, and it is going to be a struggle for McLaren to get any points this weekend. Toro Rosso were only 15th and 17th, Kvyat heading Sainz. The draggy STR12 and lack of horsepower from the Renault engine not boding well for the team this weekend.