Lewis Hamilton was the quickest man for Mercedes in Friday Practice at the Chinese Grand Prix but the Silver Arrows don’t have it all their own way in Shanghai.
The Briton posted a time of 1:38.315 in the afternoon session just a tenth clear of a resurgent Fernando Alonso who appeared much more on the pace as Marco Mattiacci began his first day as Team Principal.
Nico Rosberg was third in the second Mercedes as the two Red Bull’s completing the top five with Daniel Ricciardo again ahead of Sebastian Vettel.
On a gloomy day in the financial capital of China, the action on-track was as compelling as ever with the long sweeping corners allied to the longest straight on the calendar creating the expected see-saw between the better handling Red Bull and more powerful Mercedes.
With the gloom cool temperatures also meant the dusty track had very little grip with several drivers having excursions onto the run-off areas.
Perhaps the driver seen most exploring the outskirts of the track was Pastor Maldonado as the Venezuelan went off the track in the morning as he adjusted settings on his steering wheel before crashing quite early in the afternoon session as he misjudged his braking coming into the pits and hit the wall.
After a week of making the headlines for the wrong reasons, Ferrari seemed to be out to prove a point on Friday, particularly Alonso who went quickest in the morning before splitting the two Mercedes in the afternoon.
As the new team boss Marco Mattiacci watched on from inside the garage it appeared the Spaniard was perhaps running a little less fuel than those around them, however, after the disappointment in Bahrain, to see a Prancing Horse back near the top will have pleased some.
The same couldn’t be said across the garage as Kimi Raikkonen who missed the whole of the morning session with a problem. The Finn was back on track in the afternoon but could only manage seventh fastest over eight tenths slower than his team-mate.
As the cool conditions persisted, it became clear that tyre degradation will play quite a role this weekend, particularly on the soft or option rubber.
Much like last year the yellow-striped Pirelli’s were suffering from graining as the surface of the tyre forms little balls causing a drop off in performance.
Mercedes seemed to be suffering from this the most at the front while the Red Bull drivers appeared to see less of a drop-off while also stabilising their times quicker, perhaps making a two-stop race possible.
It wasn’t a perfect day for the current championship leaders with Hamilton struggling with suspension troubles, even after posting the best time of the day the 2008 champion was still unhappy as he ended his day with two minutes of the session remaining.
As for Rosberg his day was smoother but traffic and Maldonado’s crash meant he couldn’t get a clean hot-lap in on the softer tyres.
The midfield pack is as close as ever with 1.5 seconds covering Vettel in fifth to Maldonado in 18th, the greater need for handling has brought Toro Rosso and Lotus back into the battle with three Mercedes customer teams of McLaren, Williams and Force India.
The Renault-powered teams however may be relying on the weather to break into the points as the power on the straights appear to give those German-powered teams a few tenths advantage.
Sauber still appear to be just off the main midfield pack but there is a substantial gap to the slower teams at the back.
An impressive lap from Jules Bianchi gave the Frenchman a 1.1 second gap over his team-mate Max Chilton as the two Marussia’s beat the two Caterham’s with Kamui Kobayashi ahead of Marcus Ericsson.
There is no doubt that the seeming gulf in speed between Mercedes and the rest has closed somewhat in Shanghai, the Red Bull can match the Silver Arrows in the corners but just the top speed differential gives the Brackley team the edge.
Ferrari also look more competitive on a circuit they traditionally go well at, the question is whether Alonso can maintain his current position when the others turn up their engines in qualifying or will he drop back into the midfield pack.
That may not be the biggest concern for the Scuderia, however, looking ahead to Saturday’s qualifying session with rain forecast the lottery of the first two races look set to return.
As Red Bull get stronger and the power advantage is negated by the weather, ruling out a first non-Mercedes pole of the V6 era may not be such a wise idea.
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