Sebastian Vettel knows he really needs to win in Sochi this weekend - and on Friday he made the perfect start to his Russian Grand Prix weekend by topping opening practice from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Vettel – who trails Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton by 40 points in the title race – was just 0.05s quicker than Verstappen, though neither Red Bull is likely to pose a threat here thanks to engine penalties that will drop them to the back of the grid.
Mercedes kept their powder dry, opting not to run the quickest hypersoft tyre compound. Despite that Hamilton was only 0.33s behind Vettel in third, with team mate and former Sochi winner Valtteri Bottas fourth.
Daniel Ricciardo was fifth, though the Australian completed only 11 laps before being consigned to the Red Bull garage after arriving with smoke emanating from the rear of his car. A floor change was scheduled, and the team are checking the gearbox.
No one else could get within a second of Vettel’s leading pace, with Esteban Ocon in sixth for Force India, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari. Kevin Magnussen – reconfirmed this morning for 2019 at Haas, along with team mate Romain Grosjean – was eighth, from Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
At Sauber, new signing Antonio Giovinazzi was at the wheel in place of Marcus Ericsson. The Italian, who has twice raced for the Swiss squad as a stand-in, acquitted himself very well indeed, the Italian finishing 10th fastest, four places up on the man he replaces next season, Charles Leclerc.
At Renault, F2 racer Artem Markelov got to sample his home circuit at the wheel of Carlos Sainz’s R.S.18. He took 15th place, two up on Nicholas Latifi, the Canadian making his third FP1 appearance of the year for Force India, this time in place of Sergio Perez.
With the Sochi Autodrom used so rarely, grip was at a premium, with Norris and Williams’ Lance Stroll both surviving spins. Numerous drivers, including Hamilton, Bottas, Leclerc and Verstappen, also had off-track moments, but with no serious repercussions.
The big questions ahead of FP2? What can Mercedes do on Pirelli’s fastest rubber? Does Ricciardo’s Red Bull have serious problems? And will Ferrari stay on top? Find out soon…