Valtteri Bottas remained wary of Ferrari’s formidable speed as he recovered from a spin to pip Sebastian Vettel to the fastest practice time at the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday.
The Finnish Mercedes driver tops the early standings and he showed why with a lap of one minute 33.330 seconds, shading Ferrari’s Vettel by 0.027secs ahead of Sunday’s milestone F1 1,000th race.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was a close third with Bottas’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton, the reigning world champion, a significant 0.707secs off the pace and admitting: “I was struggling with the car today.”
Fifth was Nico Hulkenberg of Renault, followed by McLaren’s Carlos Sainz.
Bottas and Hamilton spun their cars early in second practice in Shanghai in almost identical fashion, but the only real harm was to their pride.
And Bottas, 29, who leads Hamilton by a point in the standings, quickly hit back from his excursion at Turn 1.
“We got there step by step and the car was feeling okay in the end, but it’s only Friday and it’s the next two days that count,” said Bottas, who was fifth in morning practice.
“Ferrari still seem to be quicker than us on the straights, whereas we were better in most corners in FP2 [second practice].”
Charles Leclerc, Vettel’s talented young Ferrari team-mate, has failed to fire so far on the circuit and clocked only the seventh-best time.
Denied a maiden victory in Bahrain two weeks ago when his Ferrari lost power, allowing Hamilton to snatch the win, the 21-year-old’s day finished early for checks on his car’s cooling system.
Four-time world champion Vettel, who went fastest in the morning practice, again set the early pace in the second session before Bottas stepped up his challenge.
But Vettel, who is facing criticism after a series of errors stretching back to last season, was given strong backing by Ferrari’s team principal.
Despite Leclerc’s emergence, the 31-year-old German remains the team’s top priority, said Mattia Binotto.
“As I said at the start of the season, if there is any 50-50 situation where we need to take a decision, the advantage would have been given to Sebastian simply because Sebastian has got most of the experience with the team in F1,” he said.
Going into the third race of the season, Verstappen is third in the standings, behind the Mercedes pair, with Leclerc and Vettel fourth and fifth.
Verstappen’s otherwise successful afternoon ended on a sour note, the young Dutchman complaining that “there’s something not right”.
“It feels like the car is broken,” he added.