(Photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID MDZINARISHVILI)
Red Bull laid their marker down early for the weekend with Daniel Ricciardo putting impressive times down in both sessions, finishing top of the standings by the end of Friday. Meanwhile, Mercedes were off the pace, finishing FP2 three-quarters of a second down. It was a mixed afternoon for Ferrari, with Sebastian Vettel struggling for grip all day, but Kimi Raikkonen putting in a flying lap to finish the day in second place, less than a tenth of a second off the top.
In the morning, the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas set the pace ahead of Ricciardo as the two traded fastest laps in a session where grip was the talk of the team radios. In contrast, the Ferraris both struggled to put in any decent laps, with Vettel only managing tenth quickest. His rival in the race to claim Championship No. 5, Lewis Hamilton, was fourth fastest of the morning, sandwiched between a resurgent Force India team who finally showed signs of returning to last season's form. Likewise, there was a welcome eighth for Williams courtesy of new boy Sergey Sirotkin, while Lance Stroll, who memorably finished on the podium here last season, claimed 11th.
On a track that favours the stronger engines, with top speeds of over 210mph on the long back straight, it was surprising to see the early season running order reversed. Ferrari, who’s early performance in both the flagship car and in the Haas has suggested they’ve jumped to the front of the power race, saw disappointing returns across the board. Grosjean and Magnussen only clocked 14th and 18th respectively while Kimi Raikkonen, whose session was ended early by a tricky suspension change, was 2.6s down in 15th.
It was the Renault that gave the most striking results, especially given Ricciardo and the Force India cars set their times on the harder supersoft tyre to the Mercedes ultrasoft runs. Max Verstappen was on a par with his teammate time-wise when an oversteer into Turn Six saw him spin the car and crash into the barriers, Unable to get the car restarted, and with half the front wing dangling precariously, it was back to the pits on the recovery van and a working lunch for the Red Bull mechanics.