A satisfied, if subdued, Lewis Hamilton topped the times for resurgent Mercedes in Friday afternoon’s second free practice for this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, the world championship leader heading the Red Bull pairing after a closely-contested session.
The defending four-time champion set his best time of one minute and 18.259 seconds on a set of soft tyres – rather than the usually faster super-soft tyres – as he regained a competitive edge at a windswept Circuit de Catalunya where team-mate Valtteri Bottas had earlier topped the opening practice.
“It was pretty good overall,” said Hamilton. “We got through all our running and we were quite fast compared to previous years, but we’ve still got some work to do overnight.
“It was so windy out there and every driver was struggling with the changing direction of the wind. When it is like that you are arriving at each corner and the wind direction is never the same. So, we saw lots of drivers going off.”
Australian Daniel Ricciardo was second-quickest for Red Bull ahead of his teammate Max Verstappen, the two managing to deliver speed without any close contact as they worked to put their collision in Azerbaijan two weeks ago behind them.
This meant that four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, who trails Hamilton by four points after the opening four races of the season, was pushed down to fourth ahead of Bottas and fellow-Finn Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari.
Romain Grosjean was seventh ahead of his Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen, Stoffel Vandoorne of McLaren and Sergio Perez of Force India.
Hamilton took over at the top of the drivers’ standings following his lucky victory, when his rivals all crashed or collided, in Baku two weeks ago, but admitted he was struggling for outright speed -– a problem he may have done something to rectify with Mercedes upgrades used on Friday.
Ricciardo, whose Red Bull featured notable aerodynamic upgrades for the opening round of the European season, was only one-tenth of a session adrift of Hamilton.
The Australian crashed in morning practice at Turn Four and later blamed a “big” tailwind.
“It is a bad corner to have a tailwind so it makes it tricky,” he said. “It caught me out this morning.
“There were a few of us making errors for sure. Unfortunately, mine was costly enough to miss the last hour of that session.”
Vettel, chasing a fourth straight pole, survived the day without incident, but his Ferrari teammate Raikkonen was hit by a power problem as the Italian team again struggled to deliver a day without difficulties.
Bottas’s time of 1:18.148 in the morning was the fastest lap of a changeable and unpredictable day and eighth-tenths faster than his team-mate’s best.
Hamilton, who won from pole last year and who is seeking to extend his record run of points-scoring finishes to 30 races, had started the day unexcited by his prospects following Mercedes’ struggle to extract a strong performance from their new car.
The Ferrari team ran with a package of upgraded new parts on their cars including rear-view mirrors set on their halo head protectors.
It was an experiment that was approved of by Vettel who denied the team had been motivated by any possible aerodynamic gains.
“That’s why we changed it because it was quite difficult for us to see cars behind,” he said. “Now they are in a bit of a different position and I can see a little bit better below the rear wing.”
Earlier, in the morning session, Robert Kubica made his first appearance since 2010 as a reserve driver for the Williams team. He suffered severe injuries in a rallying crash.
Kubica was 19th in 1:21.510, but quicker than his Canadian teenager team-mate Lance Stroll who was 20th after a trip into the gravel.
Kubica had replaced Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin who returned to finish 20th in the second session.
“It is nice to be back, but not an enjoyable car to drive,” said Kubica of his Williams.