Sebastian Vettel set the pace in the opening practice session for the Chinese Grand Prix as the top three teams were separated by less than half a second.
Lewis Hamilton had admitted on Thursday that it is hard to predict Ferrari’s form at this stage of the season, given the Scuderia’s surprisingly poor performance in Australia that was then followed by a stronger run in Bahrain. On a cool but sunny opening session, it was the latter that appeared more likely, with Vettel posting the fastest time with a 1m33.911s to lead Hamilton by a little over 0.2s.
Charles Leclerc — so unlucky to miss out on a maiden grand prix victory in Bahrain due to a glitch in an injection system control unit — was third fastest and just 0.049s slower than Hamilton, with Max Verstappen fourth quickest on a 1m34.334s. It was a result that was more promising for Ferrari given the fact both drivers used the medium tire for their best times, with Hamilton and Verstappen running the faster soft compound.
Leclerc’s problem in Bahrain appears to have led to a precautionary change in China, with both Ferrari drivers and the Haas pair of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen taking a new control electronics (CE) for this weekend’s race. Each driver is allowed two CEs during the season, with grid penalties following if they require a third.
Renault also appears to have reliability concerns, with Nico Hulkenberg requiring a new internal combustion engine, turbocharger, MGU-H and MGU-K after retiring in Bahrain. He joins Carlos Sainz on two of each component — though drivers are allowed three of the first three listed — while Daniel Ricciardo and Sainz’s McLaren teammate Lando Norris have also taken a second MGU-K.
Ricciardo was at least competitive in the opening session, finishing sixth quickest and 0.6s behind Valtteri Bottas on the same soft compound tire. Ricciardo — who was running a retro Jack Brabham style helmet as part of freedom given to the drivers at the 1000th race since the start of the Drivers’ Championship in 1950 — was nearly 0.2s clear of the man who replaced him at Red Bull, Pierre Gasly, but the Frenchman was on the medium tire and headed a group of 11 cars separated by less than 0.4s.
From Gasly in seventh to Sergio Perez in 17th the lap times were all within 0.392s, featuring all the remaining teams except Williams, which remains about a second off the rest of the field.
Daniil Kvyat, Lance Stroll and Romain Grosjean rounded out the top 10 behind Gasly, with Stroll having the most notable incident of an otherwise relatively error-free session as he suffered a spin exiting the final corner. About to start a flying lap, it appeared Stroll’s tires had lost too much temperature and he slid sideways as the rear stepped out, ruining that set of tires.
Another error caught on camera saw Norris look up at Turn 6, taking to the run-off area after releasing the brakes in order to protect his Pirellis. Norris ended up 13th, with teammate Sainz down in 16th, but there was a far more bizarre incident as one of the Toro Rossos hit a camera mounted on the Alfa Romeo pit gantry, leaving the camera broken on the floor in the pit lane.
The two Williams drivers were not bottom of the timing screens despite the relative lack of pace, as Antonio Giovinazzi completed just two laps during the session and failed to register a time. Giovinazzi has raced at the Shanghai International Circuit before as a replacement for Pascal Wehrlein in 2017, but lost out on track time due to an engine installation problem.