Lewis Hamilton returned to the top of the timesheets in free practice two for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, 0.7 seconds clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and almost 0.9 seconds clear of Rosberg to land the final blow before qualifying begins tomorrow afternoon. Ferrari’s fragility and lack of pace relative to Mercedes was again exposed during free practice two and you’d be a brave soul to bet against another Mercedes pole position for the race. Read on to see my assessment of some of the talking points from Friday practice.
Progress has been made over at McLaren
Without wanting to read too much into practice times it’s nice to see both Button and Alonso in the top ten in FP2. I know many of the headlines from FP2 will focus on Vettel’s electronic failure but one of the biggest highlights for me was seeing further evidence that progress has been made by Honda. After a couple of promising rounds McLaren seemed to lose their way a little in China but I think based on today they have a reasonable chance of snatching a point or two should any of the big hitters run into some trouble. Button finished 8th and Alonso 10th in FP2 and I’m sure everyone over at Woking would love a repeat performance in the race on Sunday. As it stands, McLaren’s reserve driver Vandoorne remains their only points scorer of the season, something which I’m sure JB and FA will be desperate to change.
I said above that many of the headlines from Friday will probably focus on another technical/engine gremlin for Ferrari, and rightly so. Ferrari are clearly still lacking a little behind Mercedes on outright pace, and not finishing (or even starting races – Vettel in Bahrain) is going to do them no favours at all. By having bulletproof reliability Ferrari would have at least have the ability to fully capitalise on any uncommon errors or mechanical failures over at Mercedes however with the state of play as it currently is, the Ferrari pit wall must be holding their breath each time each time Vettel and Raikkonen are out on track.
However, it must be said that I still think Ferrari should be applauded for their radical approach to 2016 and for clearly trying something complete different in an attempt to overhaul Mercedes. I’m sure in time, reliability problems will be ironed out and to be quite frank, it was probably wishful thinking that the championship would heading to Maranello at the end of this season. Mercedes are so so strong in this current era of the regulations that it would take a catastrophic **** up from the Silver Arrows to not emerge victorious in both championships come the end of the season.
Red Bull are coming …(still)
Red Bull are back on the way up after what was a thoroughly disappointing 2015 for the former titans of F1. Ricciardo, like everyone else in the F1 community (apart from Renault perhaps) are surprised at Red Bull’s pace early on in the season, especially at tracks which really shouldn’t suit an underpowered Renault engine. Renault and Red Bull reckon that the upcoming engine upgrade in Canada should put the Renault engine on a par with Ferrari, and if that’s the case then Red Bull genuinely have the potential to leapfrog Ferrari.
Anyway, I guess we’ll have to wait until Canada to see if that’s the case but a 5th and 7th for Ricciardo and Kvyat in FP2 are probably as good as Red Bull can manage on a very power hungry circuit like Sochi. One thing I am a little perplexed about is the rumours regarding Verstappen’s progression to Red Bull from Toro Rosso, which I’ll address in an upcoming article but for now, Red Bull appear to again, like in China be the best placed team to take advantage of any Mercedes and Ferrari race day woes.
The other end of the Renault spectrum
Is it just me or have Renault moved backwards since the start of the season? They nearly scored points in Australia but the last race in China was an absolute disaster for the returning works team and although they viewed 2016 as a transitional year, surely they expected stronger results than Magnussen and Palmer have currently bagged. Magnussen and Palmer finished 15th and 18th in FP2, and Sirotkin and Palmer finished 13th and 18th in FP1, hardly results to set the world alight. I think the stark difference between Renault and Red Bull show just how strong the Red Bull chassis is and I’m also sure that Renault will certainly make progress over the course of the season. Their return to F1 was never going to be easy, especially with agreements only finalised so late last year but the resources and drivers are there to enable significant progress over the next few seasons.