In the shadow of the Jules Bianchi tragedy, the first ever Russian Formula 1 practice took place in Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. On a track where the teams have zero data, the smart money was on Mercedes to be on top at the end of Friday and that is exactly how it ended.
Lewis Hamilton was just behind Nico Rosberg in FP1, he had the first sector hooked up in the morning session right from the get-go but lost time in the second and third sectors. He requested another hot lap from his team, at the expense of his long runs, to get close or displace his teammate’s top time in that session.
It all came good for Hamilton in the afternoon session FP2, where he set a top time and saw Nico Rosberg finish in fourth, down a second. If Rosberg is truly that much slower than his teammate then we could see a rather boring race on Sunday.
Fernando Alonso finished practice with his usual high standing on Friday (today he finished FP2 in third) but in race trim that usually translates to fifth or sixth. He did mention in the post-practice interviews that he felt very comfortable on the long runs so maybe he can drag his red car up onto the podium in what will be his and Ferrari’s first, last and only Russian GP together.
Where was the Red Bull duo you ask? For awhile, nowhere to be found. Sebastian Vettel finished the session in ninth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo was mired down in thirteenth and to make matters worse, one of his ICE’s (internal combustion engine, or to be plain, the motor) let go. Apparently this ICE was at the end of its life cycle so no harm, no foul, minus the loss of track time. We have to wait and see if Red Bull was on a different Friday program come tomorrow in Qualifying, if not then it will be a hard race for the Bulls.
Who was the best of the rest? Williams, you might guess. Nah, it was that other great English team, McLaren. Young Kevin Magnussen finished the day in second (I think that’s a first for the Dane) and Jenson Button, who was atop the timesheets for part of the session, finished in sixth.
The question on everyone’s mind: is the pace genuine? The McLarens were fast in the season opener at Melbourne, on a very green track so the pace might be real and the green track a good omen for McLaren — Ron Dennis and company could use a decent result. I would very much like to see either Mag or Button on the podium. In the case of Magnussen, I want him to stay in F1 and in the case of Button I want him to be considered still viable and a candidate for Gene Haas’ foray into F1, if he is indeed shown the door at McLaren.
The Williams of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa had a decent showing but that was to be expected with Mercedes power and the nature of this track, which in some ways is similar to Spa with small turns and a couple of really long straights. Fifth and seventh for Williams today means they could challenge for row two tomorrow.
Toro Rosso completed the top ten. Russian Daniil Kyvat ended the day in eighth, just ahead of the driver he will replace at Red Bull (Vettel) and Vergne was behind Vettel in the final top ten position. Kyvat keeps showing why a driver’s age or lack of it is an argument that is holding less and less water these days. Way to go Daniil.
Did I say the race would be boring? Maybe at the front for Lewis Hamilton, but it would appear that based on today’s times the race will be exciting behind P1. With several cars poised to have genuine pace, a chance for a safety car, and tires that are not degrading as fast as the teams had predicted due to the less abrasive track surface, we could see some ambitious strategies play out on Sunday.
One last thought, you might have already heard that Marussia is running only one car out of respect for Jules Bianchi and his family. The team also prepared Bianchi’s car and had it put through scrutineering. The #17 is on jacks in the garage and ready to race. It is a very nice gesture from the team, a class act.