Lewis Hamilton topped both of Friday’s practice sessions for the Austrian GP with the Mercedes driver just ahead of title rival Sebastian Vettel in Practice Two.
Barely a tenth of a second separated the two world championship leaders in the afternoon session, suggesting that the Red Bull Ring, one of the most power-hungry circuits on the calendar, will host another tight battle between Ferrari and Mercedes this weekend.
“Mercedes are the favourites, they seemed very quick whenever they went out today,” admitted Vettel. “It looks close and it’s a short track here so you would imagine it would be close.”
But the fight for supremacy could be disrupted by the rain showers which are forecast for qualifying on Saturday afternoon.
In dry conditions, Mercedes appear to hold a small but significant advantage over the Scuderia and comfortable on all three of the tyre compounds Pirelli have brought to Spielberg.
Having set the pace in Practice One on soft tyres, Hamilton was also quickest of all on the supersofts before switching to ultrasofts for his benchmark lap of 1:05.483 – a new record for the Red Bull Ring.
Only a faulty spark plug, requiring a 15-minute interval in the garage, interrupted Hamilton’s running.
Although he was to spin at Turn Six, Valtteri Bottas was third quickest for Mercedes, a fraction behind Vettel, while both Red Bull drivers, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, finished ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.
There was also further encouragement for McLaren and their beleaguered engine partners after the introduction of an upgraded Honda power unit. After both of their cars finished Practice One in the top 10, Fernando Alonso was eighth in P2 with Stoffel Vandoorne 12th.
Although Alonso spun into the gravel late on, the session amounted to McLaren’s best of the year so far.
Haas also performed better than expected as Kevin Magnussen ended the day seventh fastest, three places ahead of team-mate Romain Grosjean.
However, Williams, despite the introduction of several upgrade parts on their cars, struggled. “The car was not good to be honest. We didn’t have a great Friday. We’re struggling with the balance,” admitted Felipe Massa.
Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat had even more urgent cause for alarm when his brakes caught fire as he returned to the pitlane. Off the track, meanwhile, Carlos Sainz has been told he will be staying at the team for 2018 – despite the youngster’s insistence he is ready to move up the grid.
Timesheet Driver Team Tyre Time Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Ultrasofts 1:05.483 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari Ultrasofts + 0.147 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes Ultrasofts + 0.216 Max Verstappen Red Bull Ultrasofts + 0.349 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull Ultrasofts + 0.390 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari Ultrasofts + 0.661 Kevin Magnussen Haas Ultrasofts + 1.108 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Honda Ultrasofts + 1.249 Nico Hulkenberg Renault Ultrasofts + 1.252 Romain Grosjean Haas Ultrasofts + 1.280 Esteban Ocon Force India Ultrasofts + 1.336 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren-Honda Ultrasofts + 1.376 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso Ultrasofts + 1.423 Felipe Massa Williams Ultrasofts + 1.582 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso Ultrasofts + 1.617 Lance Stroll Williams Ultrasofts + 1.985 Sergio Perez Force India Ultrasofts + 2.026 Jolyon Palmer Renault Softs + 2.140 Pascal Wehrlein Sauber Ultrasofts + 3.299 Marcus Ericsson Sauber Ultrasofts + 3.387
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