Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas topped the first free practice at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, edging Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo by just 0.035 seconds and blitzing Ferrari by more than two seconds.
Encouraging for Ricciardo – winner last time out at the Chinese Grand Prix – is that his best time was set on the supersoft tire, which is theoretically slower than the ultrasoft compound Bottas used on his fastest lap.
But the start of Red Bull Racing’s weekend was bittersweet, with Max Verstappen the first driver to find the barriers around the difficult street circuit.
The Dutchman lost the rear of his Red Bull Racing RB14 approaching the apex of Turn 5, but he overcorrected as he recovered grip, spinning to the left and smacking his car side-on into the barrier.
He attempted to restart his stalled machine, but it had to be craned off the circuit under virtual safety car conditions, ending his session.
His fastest lap at the time of the crash was good enough to hold sixth overall, with Sergio Perez, Lewis Hamilton and Esteban Ocon between him and Bottas and Ricciardo at the top of the order.
While Force India impressed, Ferrari struggled badly. Sebastian Vettel managed just the 10th-quickest time – behind McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, Williams’s Sergey Sirotkin and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly – and Kimi Raikkonen retired after just 10 laps with a suspected power unit problem.
Vettel’s woes centered on the ultrasoft tires, which he complained were “toast” after just seven laps. He took to the track on another set after a long recess in the middle of the 90-minute session but was unable to make any significant improvement.
The tires are likely to be a major talking point in Azerbaijan, where Pirelli has brought substantially softer rubber compared to last year’s event.
This year’s race features the soft, supersoft and ultrasoft tires, one step grippier than last year’s selection, but given all Pirelli’s tires are softer than their 2017 namesakes this season, teams had prior knowledge of only the soft compound coming into this weekend. The majority of running therefore took place on the supersoft and ultrasoft compounds, which proved difficult for many drivers despite their theoretically superior grip.
The street circuit was typically lacking in grip for first practice, and drivers were visibly struggling to get their cars to comply around the narrow corners and many being forced to take to the run-off to avoid accidents.
The supersofts were problematic for both Renault drivers, with Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg heavily flat-spotting their red-striped tires after the halfway mark of FP1, ending their sessions early and losing valuable track time with a lack of alternative rubber available.