Red Bull’s Max Verstappen outpaced the Ferraris and Mercedes’ in a Practice Two session that leaves plenty of unanswered questions heading into the Russian GP weekend.
Verstappen, who will serve a five-place grid penalty on Sunday for an engine change, headed the qualifying simulations from Charles Leclerc by 0.335s with a best lap of 1:33.162 around the sweeping Sochi Autodrom.
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Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were third and fourth for Mercedes but finished 0.6s off the pace with Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff describing it as “a negative day” for the world championship leaders.
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Wolff added: “We are just off the pace. We are struggling to find the right clues.”
Watching the W10 on track, Sky F1’s Anthony Davidson said: “They seem right there on the long run, but the balance didn’t look right on the short run, even if they had more fuel in the car.”
Singapore victor Sebastian Vettel took longer to get his fastest lap in on the soft tyres and wound up fifth, one second off the pace.
Pierre Gasly was a standout performer for Toro Rosso in sixth place, although he was involved in a bizarre mix-up with his team-mate when they nearly collided as Daniil Kvyat came out of the pit lane.
Hamilton, meanwhile, had a near-miss of his own – albeit at far higher speed – as he came up fast behind Alex Albon’s Red Bull entering Turn Three. The Mercedes avoided contact after quickly moving to the inside of the corner to avoid Albon’s car.
Sergio Perez was a promising seventh for Racing Point, while Nico Hulkenberg was the lead Renault in eighth.
Are Mercedes behind their rivals?Although he cannot start higher than sixth owing to his grid penalty, Verstappen’s pacesetting Friday form suggests the Dutchman can still enjoy a strong weekend as Red Bull bid to rebound from an unexpectedly tough Singapore weekend.
“The whole day the last sector has been really good,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “So if you have a good feeling in the car then the car will come alive in the last sector, which is really positive especially after Singapore where it was a real struggle. I think we made some good setup directions here.
“No, not at all [disappointed about penalties].”
But there was disappointment for Mercedes on the opening day at a circuit the world champions are unbeaten at on race day since Sochi joined the calendar in 2014.
“It seems others have disproportionately gained and we have lost,” said Wolff amid the recent trend of Ferrari victories since the summer break.
Having run the slower medium tyre for the first part of Friday, Mercedes finally moved onto the quicker soft for the qualifying simulations but ;ead runner Bottas’ best effort was more than six seconds off the pace.