Friday in Sochi did not look encouraging for Mercedes. Red Bull and Ferrari out-paced them handily, and Lewis Hamilton gave a pessimistic assessment.
Are the team really that far away? It’s striking that every other team in the field was closer to their 2018 pace (or, in the case of McLaren, quicker than it) than Mercedes were. And not by small margins: Mercedes were almost two-and-a-half seconds slower than their best effort last year, whereas Ferrari were one-and-a-half seconds away and Red Bull just 0.1s slower than in 2018.
The team’s technical director James Allison indicated the team is far from being all at sea. “That was mostly a difficult day but with some bright moments in it that give us hope that we can do a good job tomorrow and on Sunday,” he said.
Allison gave plenty of cause for optimism in the Mercedes camp. “We’re quite clearly a little bit out of step with the other teams in terms of our first lap performance on a track where we’ve traditionally found it a bit difficult to get the front tyres to the temperature we need them. But we made some decent learning steps during the day and if we carry on in that direction, then things should look brighter tomorrow.
“We’re also quite reassured by the fact that on high fuel and when the first lap is taken out of the picture, the car looks swift and looks like it will be a good racing car.” Valtteri Bottas also felt the car’s single-lap pace on soft tyres could be improved, and that in race trim on the harder rubber it looked a more competitive proposition.
Despite their 0.6-second gap to Max Verstappen’s pace-setting Red Bull, Mercedes are not talking about damage limitation just yet. The Red Bulls are very likely to end up behind them on the grid anyway thanks to their engine penalties.
The timing of those changes is starting to look unfortunate, as Verstappen hinted at after practice, given their sub-par performance in Singapore. Not only do they look like genuine contenders for pole position in Russia, but the weather is expected to turn wet on Saturday, which could also have played into their hands.
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As well as potentially mixing up the order, a wet qualifying session could also mean the drivers who reach Q3 don’t have to start on used tyres, providing they don’t set their best Q2 time on slicks. We could therefore end up seeing a greater range of strategies in the race.
There is also the chance that a Red Bull driver could qualify fastest and not take pole position; indeed, they could achieve a one-two in qualifying yet both be relegated off the front row. Last year Verstappen raced from the back row of the grid to finish fifth, and he’s optimistic he’ll be able to make up places quickly again this year if he needs to.
Ferrari are wary of their pace too. “Red Bull look really quick this morning and also in the afternoon especially in sector three,” admitted Sebastian Vettel.
In Charles Leclerc’s hands the SF-90 looked fast, but throughout practice Vettel couldn’t match his team mate’s pace through the final sector. “I think we can improve especially in terms of balance, bringing the car a bit more together and then it should be a better day tomorrow,” Vettel added.
Curiously, the one team which managed to improve its 2018 time today was more pessimistic about its potential. “We tried a few things in [second practice] that clearly didn’t work or were not in the right direction,” said McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jnr. “It looks to be a challenging week for us ahead of us, because in sector three we are not able to generate any grip from the tyres or from whatever it is.”
The form guide may well be through out of the window if it rains tomorrow, and the forecast does look decidedly gloomy, with a high percentage chance of rain throughout much of the day. If qualifying stays dry, don’t be surprised if we see more of the slipstreaming shenanigans familiar from Spa and Monza, as drivers will be keen for a tow along Sochi’s several long, flat-out sections. Look out also for drivers from the front-running teams seeking to reach Q3 on the medium compound tyre, which should be possible on a dry track, and would create better strategic options for the race.
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Longest stint comparison – second practice
This chart shows all the drivers’ lap times (in seconds) during their longest unbroken stint. Very slow laps omitted. Scroll to zoom, drag to pan, right-click to reset:
Combined practice times
|1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull-Honda||1’34.544||1’33.162||54|
|6||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso-Honda||1’36.538||1’34.971||51|
|7||Sergio Perez||Racing Point-Mercedes||1’36.321||1’34.998||58|
|9||Lance Stroll||Racing Point-Mercedes||1’36.714||1’35.176||57|
|10||Alexander Albon||Red Bull-Honda||1’35.484||1’35.216||40|
|12||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso-Honda||1’38.550||1’35.337||43|
|15||Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1’36.770||1’35.374||56|
|17||Carlos Sainz Jnr||McLaren-Renault||1’36.523||1’35.635||57|
|18||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo-Ferrari||1’37.328||1’36.004||47|
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Teams’ progress vs 2018
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
2019 Russian Grand Prix
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