Sebastian Vettel finished Free Practice 1 at the top of the timing screens. Could he stay there by the end of Free Practice 2 or would his teammate Charles Leclerc stamp his authority once again? Actually, it was neither, Valtteri Bottas would set the time that would lead the way at the end of FP2.As the main grandstand filled to 1/6 of capacity and the Shanghai sun shone - battle commenced.
Shanghai has taken the role of hosting the 1000th Grand Prix very seriously and Chen Qun, the Vice Mayor of Shanghai Municpal People’s Government stated in the programme notes: ‘’It’s our privilege and honour to hold it.’’ As Free Practice 2 started, Romain Grosjean took the privilege of going out on track first with the C3 medium compound. The track temperature was 34°C and fast lap times were expected.
Antonio Giovinazzi wasted no time in heading out which was no surprise as he did not record a single lap time in Free Practice 1 having only completed 2 installation laps. As 10 minutes of the session were completed, Charles Leclerc produced the fastest time of the session to that point with a 1:34.271. Almost at the same time, Lewis Hamilton was busy spinning his W10 on turn 3 as there was not enough temperature in the tyres. Hamilton would try again to dislodge the Ferrari but due to running wide on the penultimate corner, the best he could muster at this stage was a 1:35.407 on the mediums.
First blood of the session went to the Prancing Horse at the hands of Charles Leclerc.
Slowly but surely, Max Verstappen was finding some speed in the Red Bull and slotted into second place on the medium compound with a time that was 0.267 seconds slower than Leclerc. Mercedes Did not take this lightly and bounced back with Hamilton dethroning Leclerc with a 1:34.226.
After a quick trip to the pits, with the session 30 minutes old it was time for Hamilton, Leclerc and Vettel to try their qualifying sim – the conclusion: Vettel the faster of the three but then a new threat emerged – Bottas.
Valtteri Bottas drove a magnificent lap on the soft compound hugging every corner to lead the timesheet with a 1:33.330. His nearest rival was 0.027 seconds behind…but behind nonetheless.
With Bottas being unchallenged there was time to look down the field and notable mentions for: Lando Norris (McLaren) less than a second off the top in 8th and his teammate Carlos Sainz was sat in 6th for the time being with a 0.811seconds slower than Bottas – the season has started well for McLaren and appears to continue in such a vein here in Shanghai.
As Hamilton went back on track it was evident that this was the race sim portion of Free Practice for him and a host of other drivers…no danger of anyone leapfrogging pacesetter Valtteri Bottas at this rate. However, with such close times it is conceivable to think that we could have a realistic chance of a 5 way battle for pole position tomorrow. Now that would be a special qualifying on such a special weekend.
As race simulations were enacted, the top 10 order was: P1 Bottas, P2 Vettel, P3 Verstappen, P4 Hamilton, P5 Hulkenberg, P6 Sainz, P7 Leclerc, P8 Norris, P9 Ricciardo and P10 Gasly.
This was indeed how things remained as commented by Leclerc on team radio:
"No fantastic lap times, but it's only FP2, hopefully we improve tomorrow"
They certainly can improve. Say it quietly but 5 drivers have a realistic chance of capturing pole tomorrow. These new regulations seem to be working out well - and this is only the third race weekend.