Ferrari suggested Mercedes could be in for a tough weekend at the Chinese Grand Prix after Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel secured a one-two finish in Friday’s second practice session in Shanghai. Raikkonen topped the time sheets in the afternoon, ahead of his teammate, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton only quick enough for third and fourth, respectively.
Ferrari have shown signs of progress at the start of the 2016 season, but have failed to capitalize on race day, with reliability and team strategy costing Vettel, in particular, precious points. With two wins from two to start the new Formula 1 campaign, Rosberg arrived in China with a 17-point lead over his teammate, with Raikkonen and Vettel both more than 30 points back.
But on the back of Raikkonen’s second place in Bahrain two weeks ago, Ferrari has reason for optimism in China. Vettel, though, is not getting carried away ahead of Saturday’s qualifying session.
“Friday is not so important in terms of position but in terms of feeling,” he said afterward. “We had a decent day and the feeling with the car was ok, but we can still improve, especially the balance. Tonight we'll have a lot of work to do, in order to get on top of everything. For sure to go for pole is always our goal, but it's only Friday so I wouldn't stress too much.”
Vettel’s hopes of a strong grid position will be helped by a five-place grid penalty to be enforced against Hamilton for a gearbox change. After streaking away to take his second successive title last season, Hamilton is already in the position of having to play catchup to his teammate. And he is now also anticipating a sizable challenge from Ferrari.
“It wasn't a bad day but it wasn't a spectacular day,” Hamilton said after practice on Friday, according to Reuters. “Ferrari are quick, which means we're going to have a race which is exciting. Seems that we're going to have a bigger fight than we ever have.”
It was in Shanghai that Rosberg secured his first victory in Formula 1, in 2012, and it is now the venue where he will seek a sixth consecutive Formula 1 win in a streak that extends back to last season. Were he accomplish the feat he would not only better Hamilton’s personal record of five straight wins, but further open the gap at the top of the standings.
Double world champion Fernando Alonso has no such ambitions this weekend, but the Spaniard is delighted just to be competing again after missing out on the Bahrain Grand Prix. Alonso had to stay on the sidelines two weeks ago when tests following a horrific crash at the opening race of the season in Australia revealed he had suffered a fractured rib.
“I’ve really missed driving the car in the last 26 days!” Alonso said after finishing 11th, one place ahead of McLaren teammate Jenson Button, in Friday’s practice. “But I felt good today. There’s still a little bit of pain, because the rib hasn’t completely recovered since the fracture, which is normal. But that pain is definitely manageable.”
All the drivers will be happy, though, that F1 bosses have relented and agreed to return to the 2015 qualifying format in China. A new elimination-style format was persevered with in Bahrain despite unanimous disapproval from the drivers and teams.
F1 Chinese Grand Prix schedule (all times EDT)
Qualifying: Saturday, 3 a.m.
Race: Sunday, 2 a.m.
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra