Sebastian Vettel set the pace in the opening free practice session for the Russian Grand Prix but Mercedes has yet to show its hand.
On a dirty track at the start of the weekend, Vettel’s lap of 1m34.488s left him just 0.050s clear of Max Verstappen as both drivers stayed on the hypersoft compound tire for the entire session. Lewis Hamilton, by contrast, didn’t use the softest compound available during FP1, instead posting his best lap on the soft compound and finishing 0.330s adrift of Vettel.
Valtteri Bottas — last year’s winner at a track only Mercedes has been victorious at — was fourth fastest, a little over half a second off the pace but also on the soft tires.
Although Daniel Ricciardo finished in fifth place, his session was a short one after a trip across the curb at Turn 2. Large orange curbs are in place to deter drivers from cutting the corner — the first braking point on the circuit — and Ricciardo ran slightly wide and bounced over them, returning to the pits and telling the team to check for damage. When the car pulled into the garage, some flames were visible in the sidepod, and Ricciardo did not return to the track after just 11 laps.
Ricciardo wasn’t alone in suffering reliability issues, with Nico Hulkenberg registering 18 laps before his running was brought to a premature end as Renault investigated an exhaust leak. Hulkenberg still ended up ninth fastest overall, behind Esteban Ocon in sixth, Kimi Raikkonen in seventh and Kevin Magnussen.
Magnussen was the lead Haas just an hour after the team confirmed he and Romain Grosjean would be retained for 2019, while the Frenchman was 11th behind the impressive Antonio Giovinazzi.
Giovinazzi was driving Marcus Ericsson’s car as one of four FP1 replacement drivers in Russia, and duly went 0.3s quicker than Charles Leclerc, with the Ferrari-bound driver suffering a number of off-track moments at Turn 8.
Lando Norris was another FP1 driver to beat his teammate, as the McLaren youngster was 13th quickest, 0.165s quicker than Stoffel Vandoorne as both drivers set their best times on the hypersoft tire. Norris did make one mistake, however, spinning at Turn 5 having been caught out by the loss of downforce running close behind another car.
There was a bizarre sight at the start of the session as a number of cars sat in the pit lane for a number of minutes before the track opened. Norris was at the front of the queue ahead of the two Red Bulls and Toro Rossos, with all five cars having power unit penalties to start from the back of the grid this weekend. The upshot is Fernando Alonso — who handed his car over to Norris for FP1 — will start ahead of the Red Bulls on the grid, as the order in which the cars left the pit lane decides how the penalties are applied.
Artem Markelov delivered a solid performance for Renault in front of his home crowd as he replaced Carlos Sainz in FP1, completing 22 laps and ending up 15th, two positions ahead of Nicolas Latifi in the second Force India.
Sergey Sirotkin showed a more encouraging performance for Williams than Singapore as he ended up half a second off the top 10, but teammate Lance Stroll ended up slowest after being limited to just 13 laps due to a spin at Turn 8.