FP2: Mercedes to the fore as championship leader Hamilton heads 1-2 in Russia
After Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari led the way in Free Practice 1, Mercedes strapped on the hypersofts for FP2 and unleashed the true potential of their W09, with Lewis Hamilton ending up 0.4s up on the third-placed Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
Come the session end, the front three teams were lined up in pairs: The Mercedes of Hamilton and Bottas – with the Finn 0.199s back from Hamilton – then Verstappen and Ricciardo for Red Bull, followed by the two Ferraris of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
Vettel ended up some half a second off Hamilton’s pace, and that will be a worry for the Scuderia, with the German seeking to eat into what has in the last few races grown to a 40-point deficit to the Silver Arrows pilot in the title race. Vettel was also seen to spin at the tricky Turn 13 late in the session to compound the pain, later ominously stating that "We looked quite far away from the rest of the field..."
In what was a largely incident-lite session, Sergio Perez proved once again the strength of Force India’s package, winding up P7. But the midfield team who really impressed in FP2 were Toro Rosso. Honda have fitted out both Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley with new internal combustion engines for Sochi, as they ramp up towards becoming engine suppliers to front-runners Red Bull (and Toro Rosso) for 2019.
And whatever magic dust Honda have sprinkled on the power units seemed to have worked, with Gasly winding up in eighth place, just 0.015s back from Perez. So Force India vs Toro Rosso for best of the rest in pure pace terms in Russia? On the strength of FP2, it could well be, with both Haas and Renault’s best times – set by Kevin Magnussen in P11 and Carlos Sainz in P12 – over two-tenths back from Perez. Bear in mind, however, that both Toro Rosso drivers (and Fernando Alonso) will join Verstappen and Ricciardo at the back of the grid on Sunday, after rafts of new power unit element changes for each of those drivers.
Ocon backed up Perez’s pace by finishing three-hundredths back from his team mate in ninth, while it was a good session for Marcus Ericsson, who wound up P10 and less than two-tenths off Perez, despite having missed FP1 after giving up his Sauber C37 to Antonio Giovinazzi.
The Swede was having a better time of it than team mate Charles Leclerc, who continued to look unsettled on his first weekend at the Sochi Autodrom. The Monegasque spun in FP1, and was seen running wide at Turn 5 in FP2 after experimenting with braking on the kerbs. It seems the newly-signed Ferrari man is still waiting to find his rhythm in Russia, as he ended up P13.
After Gasly’s performance, Brendon Hartley will have been disappointed to finish P16 as he continues to fight to retain his Toro Rosso seat for 2019. He ended the session nearly 0.9s adrift of Gasly, but ahead of the two McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne – who were seen experimenting with the tow around Sochi to try and improve their straight-line speed – while the Williams cars of local hero Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll brought up the rear of the field. Worryingly for the cars in white, their quickest time – Sirotkin’s 1m 36.861s – was a full 0.787s off Alonso’s best for McLaren.
So have Mercedes dealt Ferrari another hammer blow? Or have the Scuderia reverted back to their ‘sandbag on Friday, knock it out of the park on Saturday’ tactics? Be sure to tune in on Saturday to find out, in what’s poised to be one of the most crucial qualifying sessions of the season.