Hulkenberg fastest in Sochi after diesel spillage delay

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Baku, October 9, AZERTAC

Friday’s first practice for the 2015 Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix began half an hour later than scheduled thanks to an earlier diesel spill on the Sochi Autodrom. With the circuit cleaned up, it was Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg who ultimately set the pace after a flurry of late improvements, just 0.052s up on Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg.

Sebastian Vettel was third fastest for Ferrari, ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Force India and the leading Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo. Carlos Sainz was sixth for Toro Rosso, followed by Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas. Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen completed the top ten.

The morning had started badly after an overnight diesel spillage from a track cleaning machine was discovered. It had affected much of the circuit, but particularly Turn 8, and resulted in a 30-minute delay as marshals went into action with water, soap and brooms.

At 10.20 a Race Control vehicle went out to test the surface, and at 10.30 the session finally got underway. In order to maintain the day’s schedule the 30 lost minutes were deducted from the session’s duration.

With the track declared wet after cleaning, everyone but the Williams drivers went out on Pirelli’s intermediates (they opted for full wets), and Bottas had an exciting moment coming into the pits. On his exploratory lap Vettel summarised the situation perfectly over the radio: “What a mess!”

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was the first to try slicks, with his soft tyres, but it took a while for anyone to post a lap time. Eventually after 20 minutes McLaren’s Fernando Alonso set the ball rolling with 2m 00.736s, a long way off last year’s 1m 38s pole time. He soon trimmed that to 1m 53.854s, however, but it was clear that the track was still so slippery that this would not be a fast session due to the unusual circumstances.

After half an hour, Alonso was still the only man to have set a time. Ericsson, however, joined him after tip-toeing round in 1m 58.926s, 1m 57.142s and 1m 54.272s shortly afterwards. It was slow going. And then there were some spots of rain…

Despite them, Jenson Button improved from a third fastest (of three) 1m 55.781s to go fastest on 1m 50.920s on the soft tyres, making it a McLaren one-two.

Now, finally, with a quarter of an hour remaining, more cars emerged from the pits, and Sainz, then Bottas, split the McLarens with 1m 52.279s and 1m 51.946s respectively. Alonso replied with 1m 51.036s for second again, before Verstappen went fastest with 1m 50.870s. He stayed there only moments, as Alonso posted 1m 49.240s. This was more like it, with times tumbling as the rain held off.

In all this, Raikkonen spun at the slippery Turn 8, then Sainz went fastest on 1m 47.959s, only to be displaced by Perez and then Bottas on 1m 48.629s and 1m 47.959s, then Alonso on 1m 47.443s.

Vettel got up there too, in second on 1m 47.551s, before Bottas went top again on 1m 47.076s and was immediately displaced by Nico Hulkenberg on 1m 45.987s. Meanwhile the Mercedes were at the back, with Hamilton 18th and Rosberg 20th, neither yet having done a timed lap…

Rosberg, who spent much of the early running doing practice starts, put that right with 1m 46.411s on his first try, to go second with five minutes remaining, then Vettel went fastest with 1m 45.491s. Hamilton’s first run left him seventh on 1m 47.800s, though he might have improved on that had he not spun at the penultimate corner on his final run.

The world champion’s rotation came moments after Massa had spun in front of him at Turn 8.

The final minutes were a blur, with the Force Indias vying with Rosberg’s Mercedes for supremacy in the improving conditions.

Vettel had gone fastest with 1m 44.986s and seemed to have the job done only for Rosberg to improve to 1m 44.407s - but no sooner had the Mercedes driver’s time registered than Hulkenberg undercut it by 0.052s to put Force India on top.

Perez made it a good morning for the Silverstone team with fourth on 1m 45.146s as a late run put Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull fifth on 1m 45.233s ahead of Sainz on 1m 45.488s.

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