SOCHI, Russia - Formula One front runner Sebastian Vettel led a Ferrari one-two in Russian Grand Prix practice on Friday, with the resurgent Italian team appearing to have a clear edge over champions Mercedes.
The German four-time world champion enjoyed the afternoon sunshine with a best lap of 1 min 34.120 sec - 0.263 quicker than teammate Kimi Raikkonen and 0.709 clear of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.
Valtteri Bottas, a close second in opening practice, was third in the afternoon for Mercedes and 0.670 off Vettel’s pace, while teammate Hamilton was fourth. Vettel leads Hamilton by seven points after winning two of three races this season. The Briton won in China.
Sochi’s street circuit, winding around the landmark venues of the 2014 Olympic Park, has favoured Mercedes since its debut three years ago with the champions leading every lap of every race there.
Triple champion Hamilton won in 2014 and 2015 with now-retired teammate Nico Rosberg triumphant last year on his way to the title.
“This is a circuit that suits them,” commented Vettel, despite evidence that the three-year Silver Arrows’ domination is on the wane. “They'll be strong on Sunday.”
Vettel was second in Russia in 2015.
“As a team I think we’ve come a long way from the last few years,” Raikkonen told reporters on Thursday. “Are we at the same level as them (Mercedes)? I don’t know. It’s not far off, let’s put it that way.”
Russian reserve Sergey Sirotkin replaced Germany’s Nico Hülkenberg at Renault for the opening session but the car broke down on track before he could do a timed lap.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had problems in the afternoon, complaining of a lack of power, while McLaren again struggled with Belgian rookie Stoffel Vandoorne already resigned to starting the race at the back after an engine change.
McLaren are enduring a miserable season, currently last in the championship and without a point. Such is the team’s plight that Vandoorne’s Spanish teammate and double world champion Fernando Alonso will be skipping the showcase Monaco Grand Prix next month to compete in the Indianapolis 500 on the same day.
The 35-year-old told reporters on his arrival at the Sochi circuit, after spending the weekend watching IndyCar and having a seat fitting in the US, that the decision had given him something positive to focus on. “You reset a little bit your mind and you are again a rookie in a sense, so you start learning things and being very open to engineers’ discussions,” Alonso said.
“This two weeks from Bahrain to here, instead of re-thinking about the disappointment of Bahrain you have been very busy. So you arrive here with again a motivation to do well and hopefully finishing the race. It’s good for the head.”