FP1 - Damp start in Austin
Friday’s first practice session got off to a wet start in Austin in conditions more reminiscent of Silverstone rather than Texas. Given the threat of rain for Sunday’s race teams didn’t stay in the pits, but rather began to take to the track to gather their data. Debutant Brendon Hartley was one of the first out on the track as the times began to come in, with Lewis Hamilton initially going quickest, but with so few cars setting times, it was hardly representative. Quite a few drivers struggled in these tricky opening conditions, with Sean Gelael (sitting in for Daniil Kvyat), Daniel Ricciardo, and Esteban Ocon spinning on track, but all were able to continue without incident.
Some of the frontrunners were slow to get going, with Sebastian Vettel taking until nearly half an hour in to the session to get out, by which point Max Verstappen (who announced before the session that he had signed a contract extension with Red Bull until 2020) had taken top spot, but Sebastian was soon up to speed and went third, behind Felipe Massa’s Williams. Most of the drivers were now pounding around the track on the inters, and Vettel claimed the top spot as more times began to come in. Clearly the drivers weren’t going for it in these conditions, and rightly so, but despite this it was still encouraging to see Carlos Sainz put his Renault fifth, and just behind Stoffel Vandoorne who will take a five-place grid penalty for a change of his ICE.
A few drivers tried out the slicks at this point, but couldn’t make much of an impact on the time sheet, so with conditions Christian Horner described as ‘too damp for slicks, too dry for the wets’, most of the drivers returned to the pits and waited for the track to dry further. Daniel Ricciardo was the only man out on track, having been among the first to swap to the supersofts, and eventually he went fastest as the drying track came to him.
Dry running, but not quite a dry track
This prompted the rest of the field to slowly filter back out on track and put in some dry laps. Fernando Alonso wouldn’t be joining them though as he was sidelined with a hydraulic leak, whereas Sebastian Vettel’s weekend appeared to be taking an all too familiar path as his car was spotted up on stands with just 35 minutes left in the session.
Most of the leaders emerged on the supersoft tyre, and first Max Verstappen, then Lewis Hamilton went fastest, lapping over ten seconds faster than they had on the inters. Ferrari fans breathed a sigh of relief as Vettel joined them out on track and was soon up to second. Valtteri Bottas appeared to have some sort of issue on his car, but replays showed a massive lock up for the Finn into turn one, flat-spotting the tyres and causing a massive amount of vibration. Mercedes nonetheless brought him back in to the garage to check for damage.
A light sprinkle of rain with 15 minutes to go didn’t disrupt proceedings, but still ensured that the track wasn’t quite at its best before the session was out. The Red Bulls hadn’t had much running in this part of the session, with Ricciardo and Verstappen confined to the pits, Verstappen to save engine mileage, and Ricciardo with some sort of issue. McLaren managed to get Fernando Alonso out again, but he was soon back in the pits with his McLaren-Honda making all kinds of disturbing noises on its way back to the garage.
Last dash for laps
For the final few minutes Max Verstappen was back on track, and looked to either be working on high fuel runs, or had his engine turned down, as he was really struggling for pace down the straights. All cars bar Bottas, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, and Ricciardo were out on track, and it was still Lewis Hamilton who led the way as the chequered flag fell.
Sebastian Vettel finished second after recovering from his earlier lack of running but his teammate will be concerned after spending much of the latter part of the session in the pits. Carlos Sainz impressed in his first session for Renault, finishing tenth, and ahead of his teammate, who will take a 20-place grd penalty. Brendon Hartley finished 14th after a testing first Formula 1 session, although he was on the ultrasoft tyre.
FP2 - Out in the dry
FP2 began under better conditions than we saw earlier in the day, with the clouds giving way to spots of sunshine as the cars left their garages. Fernando Alonso was first out, eager to make up for his lack of running earlier. Daniil Kvyat followed him, keen to do the same after giving up his car in FP1. Brendon Hartley and the two Haas cars of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were also out to put in some early laps. Kvyat was the first to record a timed lap, putting in a 1:39.733 on the hardest soft tyres.
As the rest of the field began to filter out, we saw yellow flags thrown for Kevin Magnussen losing his car's rear end on the entry to turn 19. Initial fears the Dane was unable to move off were put to rest as he trundled back to the pit lane. As the lap times began to come in there seemed an even split between those running the soft and the supersoft tyres.
Once the first laps started to come in, it was the Red Bulls that led the way, with Max Verstappen leading Daniel Ricciardo from Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas. Lewis Hamilton was able to go third, and on harder tyres (soft) than those around him, although he looked to be struggling for grip on the yellow walled tyres. Sebastian Vettel was yet to emerge from the garage with 15 minutes gone.
Vettel's twitchy start
Vettel did eventually get out, but slid off in a similar fashion to Magnussen earlier, and beached himself in the gravel. He was able to get going again though but quickly returned to the pit-lane. It's unclear why drivers are having issues at this corner today, but replays showed Vettel's head bobbing before he spun, indicating that a bump in the track may have unsettled the car as it was braking.
Meanwhile the rest of the drivers had finished their initial runs and had headed back to the pits, with the leading order being unchanged from before. At this early stage, the Force Indias were looking handy in sixth and seventh, as were McLaren in eighth and ninth.
During this lull in the action, Nico Hulkenberg continued to lap the circuit on a set of the soft tyres, maybe working on his longer runs or fuel strategy, with Lance Stroll soon joining him to take advantage of the open tarmac.
Hamilton imperious on the ultras
The track soon filled with the sight of Formula 1 cars again, and it was the Mercedes on the move now, with both drivers fitting a set of the ultrasofts to go fastest, with Hamilton six tenths up on Bottas, who was likewise eight tenths clear of Ricciardo's previous best.
The rest of the field followed suit and soon the pink-walled tyre was the only one to be seen with out on track. Kimi Raikkonen was the first Ferrari to try these but could only go third. It was interesting to note that behind the top six, Felipe Massa was clocking times faster than both Force India drivers, and Fernando Alonso was going even faster than him!
Max Verstappen was next on the ultras, and split the Mercedes drivers, dropping into that sizeable gap between the two Silver Arrows and forcing Bottas down to third. Much to the relief of watching tifosi, Sebastian Vettel had taken to the track again and could finally show what he has up his sleeve. His first effort put the German third behind Hamilton and Verstappen, which will no doubt provide encouragement that progress can be made from here.
Long run pace
With 40 minutes left, the Mercedes drivers once again took to the track on the ultrasofts as the focus switched to longer runs and race strategy. Both Silver Arrows looked equally quick over their longer runs, but the good news is that once Max Verstappen got going, he wasn't that far off Hamilton's leading pace in the 1:39s, and was consistently lapping faster than Valtteri Bottas.
Pretty much the whole field was now out on the ultras, assessing the tyre's longer run potential. Renault would have been happy with their day's running so far, with their cars line astern in 11th and 12th. Haas would be hoping for a strong end to the session after separate issues kept both their drivers out of this session for a significant amount of time.
Ultrasofts look good for a one-stop
As the session ticked down, it became clear that the ultrasofts were shaping up to set up a one-stop race for Sunday. Many drivers had been running stints of 12 laps or more, plus whatever running they did earlier in the session, taking the age of some of the sets used to 17 plus laps.
Brendon Hartley seemed to be finding his feet, and some consistency, although he was still down on Daniil Kvyat, although this was very much to be expected to be fair to the Kiwi.
Towards the end of the session, we saw Hamilton put on a set of softs after his stint on the ultras, maybe evaluating the value of the undercut with the soft tyre, and seeing how quickly they could 'turn the tyre on.' Hamilton was able to match his general pace with this swap, as was Max Verstappen behind him.
Still a mystery is the ultimate pace of the Ferrari. They don't look too bad over one lap, but they never really got consistent runs together this afternoon to give us a clearer idea of what they have in terms of long runs.
At the moment it's looking like a fight between Mercedes and Red Bull, but Ferrari don't always show their hand on Friday, so writing them off now would be very foolish indeed.