Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team and Scuderia Ferrari have been almost mirroring one another during the first three races of the season, but it is Ferrari who seems more at home at the Sochi Autodrom.
In a session where balancing tyre temperatures once again proved tricky, it was Ferrari who came out as they meant to go on and immediately started setting times over half a second ahead of the Silver Arrows. They certainly appear to have found something more, possibly the result of in-season testing in Bahrain.
Cleverly, Ferrari ran each driver with a different tyre to gift themselves enough data for making an informed decision during Q2, the tyres from which they must start the race on. Sebastian Vettel managed to find a quarter of a second more than Kimi Raikkonen, finishing top with a 1:34.120 compared to his 1:34.383.
Valtteri Bottas found himself off the pace of the Ferraris, but had a less dramatic session and wasn’t aired as much his team-mate who was putting on a spectacular show of lock-ups. He finished third, 0.670s down.
Lewis Hamilton suffered an infuriating session, plagued by numerous mistakes, lock-ups and trips beyond track limits. The Brit initially struggled during an out-lap, failing to warm his tyres sufficiently and although he attempted a run, it was soon aborted after he found himself half a second down in a single sector alone. Other laps were plagued with lock-ups that quickly flat spotted his tyres. He was four tenths down on Bottas and finished fourth.
The Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team duo certainly struggled to tame the ultra-soft tyres whilst Ferrari appeared to easily unlock their potential.
The Red Bull Racing pair were looking comfortable as the third fastest team, but with only twenty minutes remaining the RB13 of Max Verstappen shut itself off. He had found himself around a second and a half down on the pace of leader Vettel.
That’s how things ended and as the pair were unable to challenge the struggling Mercedes, only interchanging places between themselves, Verstappen finished fifth and Daniel Ricciardo sixth, three tenths down on the Dutchman with a 1:35.910s.
The remainder of the top ten was filled by four different teams, highlighting the immense closeness between the midfield.
Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa was seventh, Nico Hülkenberg in eighth for Renault Sport Formula 1 Team, Kevin Magnussen ninth and Sergio Perez tenth. If we add in eleventh place Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso in twelfth then we have six cars separated by a mere half a second.
This display bodes well for Sahara Force India who will be looking for a strong weekend to stretch their lead ahead of Williams by more than a single point. And it was another strong display from Renault, albeit only the one car, who managed to get both cars into the top-ten two weeks ago in Bahrain.
The second Renault of Jolyon Palmer was less than a blink slower than Alonso, achieving thirteenth place with a 1:36.771s.
There was more than a two tenths gap to Romain Grosjean who returned to his vocal self as the Haas F1 Team’s car gave the Frenchman plenty to complain about. He appeared uncomfortable with the Haas’ balance throughout the entire running and it is unknown whether the cause was the new brakes that the team are trialling or the car itself.
Grosjean found himself off the racing line as much as he was on it, and only managed fourteenth, six tenths down on his team-mate Magnussen in eighth.
Stoffel Vandoorne sandwiched the two Scuderia Toro Rosso drivers despite being late to the afternoon following a power unit change after the morning session. This will unfortunately cost the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team driver a fifteen place penalty for the race on Sunday.
His 1:37.125s was less than a tenth slower then Carlos Sainz in fifteenth and almost two tenths quicker than home bird Dannil Kvyat in seventeenth.
Sauber F1 Team appear to be heading for another difficult weekend as their year-old engine is once again showing its limitations. Pascal Wehrlein was eighteenth with a 1:37.441, three and a half tenths ahead of team-mate Marcus Ericsson in twentieth.
The pair were only joined by the second Williams of Lance Stroll who split them with his best time of 1:37.747s.
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