SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Formula One championship leader Lewis Hamilton led the way as Mercedes ended the first day of Russian Grand Prix practice with a dominant one-two on the timesheets while rivals Ferrari struggled.
The Briton, 40 points clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with six races remaining, lapped Sochi’s 5.8 km Olympic Park circuit with a best time of one minute 33.385 seconds on the hypersoft tyres.
“Sochi has been one of the weaker circuits for me in the past, particularly last year,” said Hamilton. “So I’ve done a lot of work to understand the balance and see where I can improve to try and rectify this.
“Today has been good in that sense.”
Vettel ended up only fifth-fastest, in 1:33.928, and behind the two Red Bulls driven by Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. His Finnish team mate Kimi Raikkonen was sixth.
The German had been fastest in the morning with a best time of 1:34.488, also on hypersoft tyres, with Hamilton third on the slower softs.
Vettel is running out of time to rein in Hamilton, who has seven victories to his name this season, including four of the last five, and Friday did not give him much to smile about.
“Some Fridays are good, some aren’t and this one hasn’t been great for us. We are not where we want to be yet and we’ve got some catching-up to do,” said the Ferrari driver.
“Today it was difficult to put the laps together. We went through the tyres too fast, especially the front left, and struggled a bit with both the fast laps and with fuel on board,” he added.
Mercedes have won every Russian Grand Prix since the first in 2014, with Hamilton twice victorious and team mate Valtteri Bottas winning last year after now-retired Nico Rosberg in 2016, and can count on upgrades for Sunday’s race.
Verstappen is sure to have something to celebrate on Sunday, his 21st birthday, but any thoughts of becoming the first 20-year-old to start on pole position are gone due to a raft of engine penalties.
The Dutch driver is one of five listed with confirmed drops to the back of the grid, leaving the exact starting order uncertain.
Verstappen’s Australian team mate Daniel Ricciardo, Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley as well as McLaren’s Fernando Alonso were the others hit with grid penalties.
“Taking the penalties here is not so bad because it’s not our strongest track, so it’s best to get it out of the way,” said Verstappen.
“Starting from the back of the grid should be fun. I mean, moving forward and passing people is never easy but we’ll see how far we can get.”
Vettel took pole in Sochi last year but Bottas made a lightning start to set up the win. The Finn was 0.199 slower than Hamilton in Friday’s dry afternoon session.
Ricciardo, fourth after lunch, had sat out much of the morning with mechanics working on his car.
Italian reserve Antonio Giovinazzi, who will step up to the Sauber race seat next season, took Marcus Ericsson’s car for the opening practice while British teenager Lando Norris gained experience ahead of his McLaren debut next year.
Giovinazzi was 10th fastest, with 18-year-old Norris — who went off but avoided the barriers — 13th.
McLaren regular Stoffel Vandoorne, who is ceding his place to the Briton at the end of the year, was only 16th.
Renault gave Russian F2 driver Artem Markelov (15th) a run in Carlos Sainz’s car while Canadian Nicholas Latifi (17th) was in Sergio Perez’s Force India.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin; editing by Christian Radnedge, Kevin Liffey and Pritha Sarkar