Malaysian Grand Prix 2017: Mercedes struggle in rain affected Friday practice

Friday practice saw a myriad of different track condition for the drivers to tackle. Whatever the conditions though, Mercedes looked to be off the pace.


FP1

Malaysia greeted Formula 1 this weekend in typical fashion: with a downpour just before FP1. This caused a delay of around half an hour before the drivers finally got strapped in and out on track. Despite the suspension, the clock was still ticking, so now the teams only had an hour left to run. This would no doubt feel like a blow to the raft of junior drivers being given a Friday outing. Charles Leclerc (Sauber), Antonio Giovinazzi (Haas), Sean Gelael (Toro Rosso) and Sergey Sirotkin (Renault) were sitting in for Marcus Ericsson, Kevin Magnussen, Carlos Sainz, and Nico Hulkenberg respectively. Of course, Pierre Gasly made his full debut for Toro Rosso as he replaces Daniil Kvyat for two races.

Once the green lights were shown, it was the Ferraris who were first out, followed by a halo-clad McLaren as Fernando Alonso as cars went for an exploratory lap. There was a brief window of on track action as Gasly, Stoffel Vandoorne, and several others ventured out for a few laps on the full wet tyres, but there were still no times on the board. Notably absent from this early running were the two Red Bull and Mercedes drivers, who evidently didn’t want to risk too much so early in the weekend.

About 50 minutes in we saw the first drivers head out on the intermediate tyres, with first Esteban Ocon, then his teammate Sergio Perez, leaving the pits with the green walled rubber. They were followed closely by the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo. As more drivers, including championship leader Lewis Hamilton, started to finally put the laps in, it was the Australian who set the first lap time of the day, a cautious 1:55.601. This was soon bettered by Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, who went quickest with a 1:51.201.

All cars bar Alonso and Felipe Massa were now out on track. As drivers experimented with track limits, the rain began to fall again. This didn’t interfere with any further running though, and allowed Lance Stroll to once again demonstrate his wet weather skills by pipping Kimi Raikkonen to third place with quarter of an hour to go. As the clock ticked down, it was revealed a hydraulic issue had put an end to Massa’s practice, while delays getting the halo off Alonso’s car only allowed him to return to the track for the last ten minutes of the session.

The Red Bulls looked in a class of their own at this early stage, trading fastest times until Max Verstappen finally came out on top with a 1:48.962. Ricciardo was seven tenths down, with Alonso a surprise third. The two Ferraris were next, followed by the two Mercedes. Lance Stroll, Pierre Gasly and Sergey Sirotkin rounded out the top ten. Not a bad day for the youngsters!

A wet start to the final Malaysian Grand Prix then, and with more rain forecast to hit the circuit throughout the course of the grand prix, we could be in for a very dramatic weekend!

FP2

Second practice got underway, and given that the morning’s rain had given way to dry conditions, and even a bit of sunshine, all drivers were out pretty quickly on the soft tyre, with the first time of the day coming from Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson. Within the first quarter of an hour, all cars were out on track, although Pierre Gasly was soon back in the garage with smoke coming from the back of his Toro Rosso.

Initially, it was the Red Bull guys setting the pace again, before Sebastian Vettel put his Ferrari on top. Things weren’t looking so rosy down at Mercedes, as Valtteri Bottas ran wide at turn ten, and Lewis Hamilton experienced a spin around the back of the circuit. Not the best start for the Silver Arrows, and they sat fifth and sixth after the first half an hour of FP2.

For the last hour of practice, the teams decided to bolt on the supersoft tyres and send their drivers back out for a spot of low fuel running. This allowed Red Bull to once again claim the top spot, as Daniel Ricciardo put in a 1:32.099, before the Ferraris came through to depose him once more, with Vettel posting an impressive 1:31.261, six tenths quicker than teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Bottas emerged once again but could only manage fifth fastest, while Lewis Hamilton only managed to claim the same spot with a time 1.4 seconds off the leading Ferrari’s pace.

Meanwhile, Pierre Gasly had managed to get back out after his reliability scare, and was driving well, up on his team mate Carlos Sainz by a tenth on the supersofts. Sainz was not having a good time, complaining over team radio about a lack of power, and was eventually told to box.

If Sainz thought he was having a bad time, he really should compare notes with Romain Grosjean, who experienced a dramatic crash after his right rear wheel was utterly destroyed by what turned out to be a rogue drain cover that was sucked up into the car when the Frenchman drove over it. Fortunately Grosjean was ok, but the session had to be red flagged to attend to the drain cover issue.

With only 20 minutes left, and a need for the likes of Charlie Whiting to get out to the scene of the accident to investigate the drain cover, we saw no more running on Friday in Malaysia.

So with a soaked FP1 and truncated FP2, what have we learned? One thing is for sure, whatever the conditions, it looks like Mercedes have a fight on their hands this weekend as their pace showed so far just hasn’t cut it. Ferrari will be pleased with a job well done, while Red Bull and Fernando Alonso will no doubt be doing a rain dance tonight to try and give them a chance to show the kind of impressive wet weather performance that we saw in FP1

What did you think the main take aways from this morning’s practice sessions were? Let us know in the comments below!

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Nick Brown

Audio tech by day, caffeine fuelled RS F1 writer by night/horrifically early flyaway race weekends.

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