SHANGHAI (AP) — Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton topped the leaderboard as expected during both practice sessions at the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday, though Ferrari showed it had the pace to possibly challenge the silver cars over the weekend.
Hamilton set the fastest time at 1 minute, 37.219 seconds, which Mercedes said was 1.2 seconds faster than last year’s best practice time at Shanghai International Circuit.
Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen was just behind the British driver in second place, trailing by less than a half second.
“It’s quite close between us and Ferrari,” Hamilton said. “I think we definitely have a race like we said we would.”
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo set the third-fastest time of the day, giving his struggling team a boost a day after company owner Dietrich Mateschitz reiterated his threat to pull out of Formula One if he can’t field a competitive team.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel was fourth-fastest and Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg could manage no better than fifth after running slightly wide at the final corner of his flying lap on the soft tires.
“I tried a different line on the grass at the final corner, which was not very quick as it turns out,” Rosberg joked.
The most bizarre moment of the practice sessions came when an intruder scaled a 10-foot fence separating the grandstand from the track, dashed across the starting grid and then leapt over the pit wall and through a gap in the fence.
The man made it into pit lane before being apprehended by security staff.
FIA, the sport’s governing body, was investigating the incident, which did not cause a delay to the practice session.
Ferrari had been hoping to build on Vettel’s resurgent victory two weeks ago at the Malaysian Grand Prix, although the German driver tried to temper expectations of his team’s chances of prevailing in Shanghai, where the long straights and cooler temperatures favor the Mercedes cars.
Vettel was a full second slower than Hamilton in the opening practice session, but Raikkonen managed to close the gap somewhat in the afternoon.
“I think we can do a step forward (in qualifying) tomorrow and then we can see what we can do,” Vettel said. “The target No. 1 is that we are right behind Mercedes. You have to accept that they are very strong, as the season gets on we try to get closer and closer.”
Ricciardo’s time also gave slumping Red Bull reason to believe it could contend for a podium position after a disappointing start to the season.
“We had a few aero updates and drivability is always getting better,” he said. “We definitely have had an improvement and that’s all we can ask for.”
Ricciardo’s teammate, Daniil Kyvat, had issues with his brakes, though, going off the track, crossing a gravel path and bumping into a wall when he failed to slow down. The Russian driver had the sixth-fastest time of the session before abandoning his car.
Rounding out the top 10 were Valtteri Bottas of Williams, Felipe Nasr of Sauber, Romain Grosjean of Lotus and Jenson Button of McLaren.
Felipe Massa also went off the track after losing control of his Williams car on a long straight and coming to rest just shy of the wall. The session was halted while Massa’s car was taken off the track just as many of the drivers had switched to the faster soft tires.
McLaren showed a slight improvement over its performance in Malaysia, with Button coming within two seconds of Hamilton’s time in the afternoon session and teammate Fernando Alonso just behind him in 12th place.
After both McLaren drivers failed to finish the Malaysian GP due to problems with their new Honda engines, Alonso said Thursday his main goal in Shanghai would be “to finish the race.”
For the first time this season, the two Manor cars were also on the track at the same time in practice, but Roberto Mehri was nearly six seconds off the pace while teammate Will Stevens was more than seven seconds back.