Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes partner Valtteri Bottas are preparing for a damage limitation weekend after Ferrari signalled in both of today’s practice session at the Sochi Autodrom that they could be very hard to beat on Sunday.
Hamilton set the initial pace with 1m 39.558s on Pirelli’s soft-compound tyre in the morning, with Bottas next on 1m 39.871s, but they reversed position as the Englishman struggled when they switched to supersofts.
Bottas lapped in 1m 36.998s compared to Hamilton’s 1m 37.607s, and after the Englishman had improved to 1m 36.681s which left him third overall, the Finn slashed that with 1m 36.119s.
By then, however, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen had set the fastest time of 1m 36.074s on the same rubber.
Ferrari moved Mercedes on to full red alert in the afternoon, as Sebastian Vettel joined Raikkonen to further demonstrate their car’s superiority on the softest two Pirelli tyre compounds – the supersoft and the ultrasoft.
On the former Raikkonen set the pace with 1m 35.980s, with Vettel next on 1m 36.524s, before they were temporarily split by Bottas on 1m 36.283s, and Hamilton then went fastest with 1m 35.752s. But where the Ferraris could seemingly set times at will, it was soon clear that the Mercedes were struggling.
On the ultrasofts the red cars were in a class of their own, worryingly so for the silver arrows since Sochi is a track which places the greatest load on the right front tyre, and thus ought not to exacerbate Mercedes’ known problems with rear tyre wear.
Vettel improved the fastest lap to 1m 34.120s – 3.463s faster than the same session last year thanks to the revised 2017 regulations. Raikkonen was second with 1m 34.383s, as Bottas again edged out a struggling Hamilton, with 1m 34.790s after two runs to the Englishman’s 1m 34.829s from a single run.
He had to lock up his front wheels avoiding Pascal Wehrlein in Turn 13 on his second and didn’t get another go before having to focus on race simulations.
Red Bull were also struggling, with Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo on 1m 35.540s and 1m 35.910s, before the Dutchman stopped in the pit entry with loss of power.
When all the qualifying simulations were completed Ferrari had an advantage of around six- to seven-tenths over Mercedes, and 1.4 to 1.7s over Red Bull. That’s the sort of gap that Mercedes have enjoyed for the past three years. And on race pace, the Ferraris had an advantage on both compounds too, with Bottas again being the quicker Mercedes driver.
“A bit of a difficult day for us,” Hamilton said. “We managed to complete everything that we needed to do on our runs, but in terms of the balance of the car, the Ferrari seemed very, very fast on the long runs so we need to work out how we can improve our race pace.
“But there’s still everything to play for. The tyres feel very peaky, so it’s easy to drop out of the window of performance. But when they are working they seem to be very good.”
The only low point for Ferrari is that with both drivers taking their third turbochargers of the season, they risk receiving 10 grid-place penalties should they exceed the permitted allocation of four. Mercedes, meanwhile, put on a brave face as an insider said: “It’s a matter of going through all the data tonight and making sure that we get the tyres in their optimal working window. We’re not too worried about today’s situation.”
“There are a couple of parameters that we didn’t get right today which are no brainers to change,” team chief Toto Wolff expanded. “They should get the gap down to a couple of tenths, and we know we have that in the power unit,” meaning when they habitually turn up the wick for final qualifying. It remains to be seen how that will work out for the race, however, when they have to turn it down again.