Vettel fastest in first practice, Hamilton third

SOCHI, Russia — Sebastian Vettel started the Russian Grand Prix weekend where he hopes to finish it — at the top of the timing screens.

The Ferrari driver arrives in Sochi under mounting pressure after a series of mistakes which have helped championship rival Lewis Hamilton build a 40-point lead in the title race. Vettel was the quickest in the opening 90 minutes of the weekend’s running, posting a 1:34.488 on the hyper-soft tyre — the softest in Pirelli’s range of three.

Lap times are rarely worth reading into in the opening practice session and Vettel’s was ultimately hindered by none other than Hamilton himself, with Vettel encountering the reigning world champion in the final sector while Hamilton was on a slow lap of his own.

Vettel’s time was just 0.050s quicker than Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who also set his best on the hyper-soft. The Dutchman went quickest of anyone through the tight and twisty final sector.

Sebastian Vettel clips the apex at Turn 2 at the Sochi Autodrome.

Charles Coates/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finished third and fourth for Mercedes, but set their best times on the soft tyre — they had both used the ultra-softs early on but improved when running with the yellow-striped tyre. Given the performance gap in the tyres, Hamilton’s 0.3s gap to the lead time was impressive, although the soft tyre is unlikely to be used in the two meaningful sessions of the weekend, qualifying and the grand prix itself.

Daniel Ricciardo was fifth, but he spent a large chunk of the session in the garage after encountering a small fire at the back of his Red Bull car. It was later confirmed to have been caused by an overheating exhaust, something Red Bull chose to investigate as a precaution.

Esteban Ocon was sixth for Force India ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari. Raikkonen’s times were underwhelming but he seemed to concentrate more on the purple-striped ultra-soft tyre (which sits in the middle of this weekend’s range between soft and hyper-soft).

Kevin Magnussen was eighth for Haas ahead of Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault, two teams which look set to continue their close scrap this weekend. Hulkenberg’s session was cut short by the discovery of an exhaust leak.

Antonio Giovinazzi was tenth in his first F1 session since the confirmation of his move to Sauber for 2019 as he deputised for the man he will replace, Marcus Ericsson. Romain Grosjean was 11th for Haas, which started the morning by confirming the Frenchman will stay on for another season alongside Magnussen in 2019. Pierre Gasly was 12th for Toro Rosso running Honda’s newly-upgraded engine.

McLaren junior Lando Norris, deputising for Fernando Alonso as he continues to gain valuable track experience ahead of his F1 debut season in 2019, accumulated 25 laps in a session which included a spin at Turn 4 early on.

Charles Leclerc was 14th for Sauber, ahead of Russian driver Artem Markelov, who took Carlos Sainz’s seat for the session. Another stand-in for the session was Nicholas Latifi at Force India; he finished 17th.

Sergey Sirotkin finished the opening session of his home race in 18th, ahead of Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley, who finished joint-top of the mileage chart with Bottas on 28 laps. illiams driver Lance Stroll rounded out the order in 20th. The Canadian driver had a big lock-up and spin while entering the final sector, although he managed to stop short of the wall and continue his session.