Valtteri Bottas edged out Sebastian Vettel by just 0.027s in FP2 for the Chinese Grand Prix, but Charles Leclerc missed out on much of the session with a reliability concern.
After Vettel set the pace in the opening session using the medium compound, Bottas hit back for Mercedes on Friday afternoon during the qualifying simulations on soft tires. The Finn registered a 1m33.330s to sneak ahead of Vettel’s 1m33.357s, with Max Verstappen a close third for Red Bull.
In a sign of how competitive the top three teams look, one driver from each registered a fastest sector, with Verstappen quickest in the first sector, Bottas strongest in the middle and Vettel in sector three. Verstappen lost out on the long back straight and in the final corner to end up 0.221s off Bottas.
There were concerns for all three teams, but Ferrari had by far the greatest when it came to Leclerc’s car. After seeing his hopes of winning the Bahrain Grand Prix ended by a reliability issue, Leclerc was confined to the garage after just 13 laps with what Ferrari described as a cooling system problem, with the team adding: “No big concern. Anyway, we are going through careful checks on the cooling system as a precaution to avoid any damages.”
Verstappen had already reported an issue with his downshifts and then insisted “something isn’t right … it feels like the car is broken” after suffering with his clutch when returning to the pits at the end of the session.
For Mercedes, the problems came on cold tires, with both Bottas and Lewis Hamilton suffering spins. The Finn was on hard tires and immediately spun at Turn 1 when exiting the pits, while Hamilton was on mediums when he got a little further and swapped ends at Turn 2 in a sign of how lower tire blanket temperatures can affect grip.
There was even an issue for Vettel right at the end of the session, as he missed a call to the weigh bridge and stopped in the pit lane, with his Ferrari team having to run up to push him back to the FIA’s garage.
Hamilton’s soft tire lap was scrappy and he ended up 0.7s slower than his teammate in fourth place, only beating Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault by 0.059s. The midfield again looks closer to the front three at this stage of the weekend, with Carlos Sainz in sixth ahead of Leclerc, and Lando Norris eighth all within a second of Bottas.
Daniel Ricciardo was ninth — for now suggesting Renault and McLaren look the strongest midfield teams as they were in Bahrain — while Pierre Gasly’s struggles in the Red Bull continued with the Frenchman nearly a second off Verstappen in 10th place.
There was a problem for Daniil Kvyat early in the session as the Toro Rosso remained in the pits due to a precautionary power unit change, with Honda stating it had noticed an anomaly after FP1. Kvyat still managed 20 laps later on, ending up 0.06s slower than his teammate Alexander Albon in 13th place.
The two Racing Point cars were 14th and 15th but were the subject of a number of angry radio messages as other drivers complained about traffic during long runs, while Haas was down in 16th and 17th with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean respectively. Even so, Magnussen was only 0.7s adrift of Hamilton on fourth place, while Grosjean ran very wide at the final corner as gusty conditions made life trickier for the drivers.