Nico Rosberg set the fastest Friday practice time at the Hungarian Grand Prix as he goes about rebuilding his collapsed championship lead.
The German, who announced a two-year contract extension with Mercedes earlier in the day, set a time of 1 minute 20.435 seconds in free practice two, which was enough to put more than half a second between himself and the rest of the field.
“For sure it’s been a good start to the weekend, and I think better than we expected,” said Rosberg. “Normally the gap would close down … but today it’s been quite big. It’s really looking good.
“It feels good out there. I like the way they’ve done the new asphalt, and it also suits our car quite a lot.”
The championship leader didn’t have to contend with his closest challenger, however, after teammate Lewis Hamilton crashed out of the session.
The session red flagged 13 minutes in when Hamilton lost the rear of the car and smacked into the barrier at turn 11.
“They’ve put a couple of kerbs in places they weren’t in before,” explained Hamilton. “They’re not normal kerbs.
“I touched that, and that’s what sent me off.”
Though the Mercedes was still travelling at considerable speed when it hit the tyre wall, the car made square contact with the faces of the two left-hand tyres, allowing Hamilton to crawl delicately back to the pits.
The team’s conclusion was to strip the car down to give it a comprehensive check for any damage, ending Hamilton’s session with just four laps completed and with what would be the fifth-fastest time.
The red flag last nine minutes before race control allowed the session to resume with a little more than an hour remaining.
Red Bull Racing, ticketed as being Mercedes’s most credible challenger around the slow and twisty Hungaroring, had opted against fitting Pirelli’s supersoft tyre up to the red flag, but at the resumption both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were let off the leash.
The result was only lukewarm — the gap to Rosberg’s Mercedes was reduced from more than one second to just 0.595 seconds in Ricciardo’s case, with Verstappen 0.8 seconds further back.
The Red Bull Racing RB12 held an advantage in the tight middle sector of the track, but Rosberg’s first and third sectors were quick enough to negate the challenge.
“We’re looking pretty good,” said Ricciardo after the session. “Obviously we’d like to be a bit closer to Mercedes, but at the moment we’re sitting second best — a bit quicker than Ferrari today — so I think we’re more or less where we expected to be.”
Key to the race will be the comparative long-run pace between Mercedes, Red Bull Racing, and Ferrari, but Ricciardo thought the level of tyre wear he experienced on Friday was light enough to beat Ferrari to second-fastest.
“The supersoft wasn’t great, but the soft was looking better. I had a little bit going on in the last run, but I think generally we’re in a pretty good position for Friday.”
Ricciardo is looking to bounce back from being beaten at Silverstone by his teenage teammate Verstappen, and his case has been strengthened by the practice gap — but the Dutchman had little trouble explaining the time loss.
“The difference in time was that I made a mistake in the last sector, so I went off the track,” he said, before adding he had no doubt the gap would close tomorrow.
Sebastian Vettel led the charge for Ferrari, splitting the Bulls for the third-fastest time, but the best he could manage was 0.9 seconds off the pace.
The story was worse for Räikkönen, who couldn’t set a time fast enough to usurp the stopped Hamilton. He finished the afternoon sixth.
Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button completed promising afternoon for McLaren to set the seventh and eighth-fastest times.
Both drivers believe they can perform well in Budapest because the circuit favours a well-functioning chassis more than it does the performance of a power unit.
Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Perez completed the top 10 for Force India.