Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari dominated the first two practice sessions for the Bahrain Grand Prix, the first held in scorching 47 degrees track temperatures, the second in a slightly cooler 34 degrees – conditions which more accurately reflect those likely to be encountered in Sunday’s race.
The Australian GP winner and joint world championship points leader was four-tenths of a second faster than Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo in the first, and 0.041s ahead of Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes in the second.
But it was not an easy day for the Scuderia, as Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari broke down in session one, and Vettel’s rolled to a halt for a while in session two with a “complete shutdown” – thought to be heat generated – before mechanics got it going again.
It wasn’t a particularly satisfactory day for joint points leader Lewis Hamilton, either.
The Englishman was only 10th fastest in the first – having set the initial pace on Pirelli’s medium and soft tyres – but in that session both he and Bottas, only 14th, ran in race trim and never ran with the low fuel loads favoured by their rivals.
The picture was similarly skewed in the second session. Hamilton was embarked upon a lap in which his first sector time was already two-tenths faster than Vettel’s when he encountered Nico Hulkenberg’s slowing Renault in Turns 9 and 10 and had to back out of the throttle and run wide. The lap was ruined, and his subsequent effort ended up 0.284s shy of Vettel’s and 0.243s off his team-mate’s before he focused on race-trim runs.
“Some of these drivers are dangerous, man,” he told his crew over the radio, though Hulkenberg is normally seen as a highly competent racer; he won the Le Mans 24 Hours classic in 2015 and was sixth fastest in that second session. The two drivers were due to see the race stewards afterwards, to discuss the incident.
It was a better day for Red Bull, after Ricciardo’s speed in both sessions, but though the fastest time comfortably eclipsed the lap record of 1m 31.447s which is held by Pedro de la Rosa dating back to 2005, it was nowhere near Hamilton’s 2016 pole time of 1m 29.493s. Given the greater power and grip of the 2017 F1 cars, that is expected to be toppled tomorrow.
Off track, the main excitement centred upon Jenson Button’s imminent return from retirement to fill in for McLaren team leader Fernando Alonso in the Monaco GP, as the Spaniard decamps for his Indianapolis 500 adventure. And the surprise news that, rather than test the MCL32 prior to the race – possibly here next week, at a tyre test after the upcoming Spanish GP, or in a Friday morning free practice session in either Russia or Spain, the 2009 world champion will make do with simulator tests at the McLaren factory in Woking.
"Jenson spent 17 years in racing in F1," racing director Eric Boullier said. "He drove actually the kind of level of downforce that we have today and, going through the differences of the technicalities to drive this year, we agreed the track layout here, or even running practice one in Barcelona, would not be very useful.
"He is fit, he is ready, and the simulator is very accurate now and we both believe that it is better for him to spend a couple of days there driving this car model around the streets of Monaco."
Button recently had a couple of days driving the 2017 car in the simulator during a visit to the UK from his Los Angeles house, and Boullier added: "He is very talented. A world champion. He had a long experience in F1 and I can guarantee you by lap 10 of Practice 1 in Monaco he will be okay. His first reaction when asked [to fulfill a clause his ambassadorial contract is believed to contain to stand in if either Alonso or Stoffel Vandoorne were to become unavailable], was “Great, I am so excited,” but other well placed sources suggest that the happily retired 37 year-old, a former Monaco winner who stopped racing after last year’s Abu Dhabi race after 305 Grand Prixes, had to be persuaded back into the cockpit.