BARCELONA (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton set the pace in Spanish Grand Prix practice on Friday as Formula One world champions Mercedes responded to the challenge of Ferrari with aerodynamic upgrades and consistently quicker times.
With the championship finely balanced after four long-haul races, Mercedes turned up at the Circuit de Catalunya with a car whose revised features drew appreciative and apprehensive murmurs around the paddock.
It appeared to be to triple champion Hamilton’s liking, with the Briton on top of the timesheets in the morning with a best lap of one minute 21.521 seconds and then fastest again in the afternoon in 1:20.802.
His times were respectively a mere 0.029 and 0.090 quicker than those of Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was third in both sessions but cut his morning deficit of nearly a second down to 0.310 after lunch.
Championship leader Sebastian Vettel was fourth on the timesheets, 0.418 off the pace in the second session, with the German also suffering an early problem that halted his Ferrari at the pitlane exit.
“There’s something broken,” the German, who leads Hamilton by 13 points, said over team radio. “There’s an issue with the gearbox”.
The car was pushed back to the garage and Vettel reappeared on track just over half an hour later.
Spain’s double world champion Fernando Alonso endured far more frustration, with his McLaren again breaking down before he had set a time in the morning. He was also slowest in the afternoon.
McLaren blamed an oil leak from the Honda engine, evident to all with liquid spilling out of the tipping car as it was winched away by a crane.
“The engine blew up after one corner. It’s the way it is, we miss the first session. I’m sorry for the fans,” said the Spaniard, who failed to start the previous race in Russia due to a breakdown on the formation lap.
“It’s tough but it’s tougher for McLaren, who brings updates trying to find a millisecond here and there and we cannot even run.”
Alonso is due to head straight to Indianapolis after Sunday’s race, missing the Monaco Grand Prix so he can compete in the Indy 500 on the same day.
On the team’s current form, it will come as a relief — with paddock jokers already wondering what other sporting events he might want to enter to delay his return. Wimbledon, perhaps?
The driver, an active user of social media, posted a photo on Instagram of himself on a tennis court.
“The engine feels good. Much slower than before. Amazing,” he said sarcastically after the second session.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, last year’s winner in Spain on his team debut, was fifth fastest ahead of Australian team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
The team had also been hoping for a big step up with aerodynamic upgrades and ended the day with Verstappen 0.636 slower than Hamilton.
Haas driver Kevin Magnussen, using an upgraded floor on his car after the toss of a coin to decide who got it, was seventh in the morning with French team mate Romain Grosjean eighth.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer filled those slots in a later session that was briefly red-flagged due to debris on the track.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by John Stonestreet)