Looking to make it five wins out of five as the Formula 1 season begins its European stretch, Nico Rosberg made a strong start to the Spanish Grand Prix weekend by setting the fastest timer in Friday practice. Rosberg arrived in Barcelona with a 43-point lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton after winning all four races to start 2016. And he was the man to beat on Friday, too, a quarter of a second ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in the afternoon session. Hamilton, held up by traffic on his best lap, was 0.719 seconds adrift of his teammate.

It is a position Hamilton has had to get used to in recent times, with Rosberg now having won the last seven races, dating back to the end of last season. The German, who took the checkered flag in Spain last year, now sits just two behind Sebastian Vettel for the record of most consecutive wins, and is currently level in second place with Michael Schumacher and Alberto Ascari.

“It’s great to be back in Europe and to be back in Spain,” the championship leader said after the completion of the second practice session. “It was a good start for us today with two good practice sessions. Times were looking good on the longer and also on the shorter stints. I feel very comfortable with the car with some new parts added and they seemed to have worked well.”

There was far less to be happy about for Hamilton, who has had his teammate’s number in winning the title for the past two years. Even though he was slowed by traffic, the Briton admitted he struggled with his car.

“That wasn't an easy day for me, I struggled with the car balance through the day and this afternoon in particular it felt really tricky to drive,” he said. “I had traffic on my quick lap, so the lap times don't tell the full story, but it's clear we have plenty of work to do this evening to get the car driving like I want it to. But we will get our heads down this evening, work through the data and I'm confident we can pull things around for tomorrow.”

Hamilton will certainly want no repeat of the last two qualifying sessions, when failures to his car’s hybrid system left him starting a long way down the grid and unable to close the gap to Rosberg on race day.

Reliability issues have also plagued Ferrari in the opening races this season. But Raikkonen’s times suggested they could be competitive, even if Vettel’s session was far less smooth. And the four-time drivers’ champion was taking a wait-and-see approach over whether Ferrari can match Mercedes this weekend.

“I think the first impression of our pace today was good,” Vettel said. “Whether we can confirm it tomorrow depends also on what the others were doing today. I believe we can make the step and be stronger tomorrow.”

There is plenty of attention on Vettel’s former team, Red Bull, this weekend, with Max Verstappen making his debut for the team after switching seats with Daniil Kvyat, now at Toro Rosso. The 18-year-old Verstappen made a solid start, coming in eighth, two places behind teammate Daniel Riccirado.

Verstappen’s former Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz, though, was the fastest of all four Red Bull-backed drivers, setting the fifth fastest time. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso was seventh quickest in a heavily upgraded McLaren.

Qualifying time: 8 a.m. EDT

TV channel: NBCSN

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra