Mercedes on the Back Foot after Difficult Free Practice Day At Sochi Autodrom

by Paul Hensby

Valtteri Bottas says Aston Martin Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Ferrari were just too quick for his Mercedes AMG Motorsport team on Friday, although the Finn was able to edge team-mate Lewis Hamilton in both free practice sessions at the Sochi Autodrom.

Bottas, usually a Sochi specialist after winning in 2017 and finishing on the podium in 2014 and 2018, ended the morning session in Russia in fourth and improved to third in the afternoon, but he ended up behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with his time more than six-tenths of a second down on the outright pace.

Overall, Bottas felt the car felt good to drive, but there is work to be done overnight to close the gap to Red Bull and Ferrari in order to be truly competitive across the remainder of the weekend.

“It’s always good fun to drive on this track, but unfortunately the others were a bit too quick for us today,” said Bottas.  “The balance of the car felt good, I was just struggling with the overall grip.

“Everything else seemed ok, but obviously we need to find some gains if we want to be in the fight for pole tomorrow. We will review the data tonight to see what we can do better.”

Bottas feels Mercedes are struggling to get their Pirelli tyres to work on the short runs, which made for the deficit to their rivals, but he feels the longer run pace seems to be better.

“Tyres are key for a good performance on this track and we need to try and extract more from the Soft tyres on a single lap, but our performance on the Medium and Hard tyre looked relatively decent,” said the Finn.

“I hope for rain tomorrow, I think we might have a better chance in a wet qualifying.”

Team-mate Hamilton ended the morning session in fifth but improved to fourth in the afternoon, but the reigning World Champion says his pace is not as strong as he hoped it would be, particularly compered to Red Bull and Ferrari.

“It’s been a day of discovery and exploring,” said Hamilton.  “It started off not too bad and while we’ve been improving, the others made some big progressions and improved much faster than we did.

“Our pace was a little bit better in FP2, but still not where we want to be. We’ll work very late tonight to understand what we can do better and make some changes to the car for tomorrow.”

Hamilton says it is good to see the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari be competitive, but it would be better if Mercedes were involved in the scrap, and he predicts it will be a tough Saturday as well, regardless of the weather conditions.

“It’s good to see the competition doing so well, but naturally we want to be in a fight with them, so that’s what we’re working towards,” insisted the British racer.  “It’s going to be a tough day tomorrow, but I hope it’s going to be raining.

“I don’t think we’ve ever driven here in the rain, so that would make it pretty interesting.”

Andrew Shovlin says there is still optimism at Mercedes despite the difficult day at Sochi, with the long run pace in particularly stronger than the shorter run speed.  He says that once the tyre warm up issues resolve themselves, the car seems to come alive, which bodes well for their performance on race day.

“That was mostly a difficult day but with some bright moments in it that give us hope that we can do a good job tomorrow and on Sunday,” said Shovlin.  “We’re quite clearly a little bit out of step with the other teams in terms of our first lap performance on a track where we’ve traditionally found it a bit difficult to get the front tyres to the temperature we need them.

“But we made some decent learning steps during the day and if we carry on in that direction, then things should look brighter tomorrow. We’re also quite reassured by the fact that on high fuel and when the first lap is taken out of the picture, the car looks swift and looks like it will be a good racing car.

“There’s definitely a load of work for us still to do, but hopefully we can get that done well and put the frustrations of today behind us and retain the good bits that we saw.”

Lewis Hamilton was outpaced by team-mate Valtteri Bottas in both sessions – Credit: Steve Etherington

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