Under pressure after a troubled start to the season, two-time defending Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton got his Russian Grand Prix weekend off to the perfect start on Friday. Hamilton arrived in Sochi trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by 36 points in the drivers’ standings after a seventh-place finish in China two weeks ago.

But it was the Briton who led the timesheets in the second practice session on Friday afternoon, well clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in second, and Rosberg in third. Even considering his teammate didn’t post a true time on the fastest tire, it was still just the kind of smooth day Hamilton will have wanted after being forced to start from the back of the grid in Shanghai and then, for the second race in succession, being involved in a first-lap collision.

“It’s good to be back in the car after what’s felt like a pretty long wait since China,” Hamilton, who has won the two previous Russian Grands Prix in Sochi, said afterward. “It’s been a constructive day to start the weekend, too. I think we’re looking strong here–but we need to keep working hard if we are to try and stay ahead of the Ferraris.”

Staying ahead of the Ferraris was not exactly hard work on Friday. Not only were both of the Italian team’s cars well short of Mercedes’ pace, they encountered further technical difficulties of the sort that have plagued their start to the 2016 season.

Two weeks on from teammates Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen colliding into each other on the first lap in China, Vettel will be subjected to a five-place grid penalty after requiring a gearbox change before the permitted cycle of six races. For Vettel, whose engine failed spectacularly in the Bahrain Grand Prix, it is the latest frustration in a season where Ferrari have hinted that they could challenge Mercedes but been let down by faltering reliability.

“Looks like we had an electric problem, but I am sure we can fix it,” Vettel said. “Still, it is a shame, because now we are lacking some laps, especially in the long runs on race trims, which would have allowed us to see how competitive we are. I think the car was getting better though. The track was quite dirty in the morning and then during the day it came more towards us. I felt happier as the day continued, it's true that for the race we are lacking a bit of information, but we will see tomorrow morning, when we have another practice session.”

Friday’s practice was also notable for Daniel Ricciardo giving the first on-track test of the “aeroscreen” cockpit head protection, which Red Bull want to be adopted next year instead of the “Halo” structure trialed by Ferrari in the winter.

“It was different this morning running with the aeroscreen, not having the wind rolling on me and the engine sound was different as well,” Ricciardo said. “The visibility was pretty good, so first impressions were fine, it was drivable.”

Ricciardo, who finished fourth, a place behind teammate Daniil Kvyat, in China, was the quickest of the non-Mercedes and Ferraris in Russia on Friday, ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas. There were encouraging signs for McLaren, too, with Jenson Button setting the eighth fastest time and teammate Fernando Alonso coming 10th.

F1 Russian Grand Prix TV schedule

Saturday, 8 a.m. (CNBC)

Race: Sunday, 8 a.m. (CNBC)

Live stream info: NBC Sports Live Extra