Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel in the pits ahead of the first free practice session for the Russian Grand Prix. Picture: Sergei Grits / AP

Sochi, Russia - Ferrari's Formula One title contender Sebastian Vettel set the pace in first practice for the Russian Grand Prix on Friday with five of the 20-car field already facing penalties for Sunday's race.

Vettel lapped the Sochi circuit with a best time of 1m34.488 seconds, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen a mere 0.050s slower and championship leader Lewis Hamilton third for Mercedes. 

Hamilton, 0.330s off the pace but on the slower soft tyres rather than the hypersofts used by Vettel and Verstappen, leads his fellow four-times world champion by 40 points with six races remaining. Vettel is running out of time to rein in Hamilton, who has seven victories to his credit this season including four of the last five.

Verstappen turns 21 on Sunday but his chances of becoming the first 20-year-old to take a pole position became non-existent when he was one of five drivers listed with confirmed engine penalties. He would normally have to start from the back of the grid but where exactly he will line up remained uncertain due to the number of similar penalties handed out.

Verstappen's team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, Toro Rosso's Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley as well as McLaren's Fernando Alonso were also hit with grid drops to the back of the field.

Picture: Sergei Grits / AP

Vettel took pole in Sochi in 2017 but victory went to Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas with Mercedes still unbeaten in Russia since the race's debut in 2014.

Ricciardo was fifth fastest, behind Bottas, but sat out much of the session with mechanics working on his car on an otherwise uneventful morning. Italian reserve Antonio Giovinazzi, who will step up to the Sauber race seat in 2019, took Marcus Ericsson's car for the opening practice while British teenager Lando Norris gained experience ahead of his McLaren debut next year.

Giovinazzi was 10th fastest, with 18-year-old Norris - who went farming once but avoided the barriers - 13th. McLaren regular Stoffel Vandoorne, who will cede his place to Norris at the end of the year, was 16th.

Renault gave Russian F2 driver Artem Markelov a run in Carlos Sainz's car while Canadian Nicholas Latifi drove Sergio Perez's Force India.

RESULTS 

1 Sebastian Vettel - Ferrari - 1m34.388s (HyperSoft)

2 Max Verstappen - Red Bull - 1:34.538 (HyperSoft)

3 Lewis Hamilton - Mercedes  - 1:34.818 (Soft)

4 Valtteri Bottas - Mercedes - 1:34.999 (Soft)

5 Daniel Ricciardo - Red Bull - 1:35.524 (HyperSoft)

6 Esteban Ocon - Force India - 1:35.663 (HyperSoft)

7 Kimi Raikkonen - Ferrari - 1:35.696 (UltraSoft)

8 Kevin Magnussen - Haas - 1:36.196 (HyperSoft)

9 Nico Hulkenberg - Renault - 1:36.274 (HyperSoft)

10 Antonio Giovinazzi - Sauber - 1:36.712 (HyperSoft)

11 Romain Grosjean - Haas - 1:36.816 (HyperSoft)

12 Pierre Gasly - Toro Rosso - 1:36.944 (UltraSoft)

13 Lando Norris - McLaren - 1:37.022 (HyperSoft)

14 Charles Leclerc - Sauber - 1:37.054 (HyperSoft)

15 Artem Markelov - Renault - 1:37.183 (HyperSoft)

16 Stoffel Vandoorne - McLaren - 1:37.187 (HyperSoft)

17 Nicholas Latifi - Force India - 1:37.206 (HyperSoft)

18 Sergey Sirotkin - Williams - 1:37.225 (HyperSoft)

19 Brendon Hartley - Toro Rosso - 1:37.944 (UltraSoft)

20 Lance Stroll - Williams - 1:39.137 (HyperSoft)