F1 Grand Prix of China - Previews

Vettel focusing on damage limitation in China

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Defending Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel has set his sights on a top five finish at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix as he looks to try and cut the gap to the all-dominant Mercedes team at the front of the field.

The Silver Arrows have claimed all three race wins so far this season, and given the margins of the victories, it is difficult to see either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg not winning this weekend’s race at the Shanghai International Circuit.

Despite claiming Red Bull’s first ever win in China back in 2009, Vettel is not thinking about a repeat this time around.

“It is a big gap at the moment,” he said. “In Bahrain it looked quite bad for everyone bar Mercedes, but here in China it could be only a little bit different.

“Historically this track was one of the tracks that has favored them, and we can expect them to be strong because of the nature of the track. Also they will be strong because they are in very good shape, which means that they are the favorites going into this race.”

Although Vettel is not totally downbeat about Red Bull’s form, he does believe that the team can only cut a tiny part out of Mercedes’ advantage this weekend, and is therefore hoping to get back into the top five after finishing sixth last time out in Bahrain.

“We expect to have made a step forward, but how big that step is we will see soon,” he explained. “It would be a massive surprise though if we could close the gap.

“We have to be realistic, and take a look at the previous races where we have lost almost one second per lap. To close this gap in one go is hopefully not totally impossible, but also being realistic this is very difficult.

“Being in the top five is what would be good for us.”

The German driver faces the biggest challenge of his Formula 1 career in 2014. After enjoying five years at the top team, the seismic changes made to the regulations have put Red Bull at a disadvantage at the beginning of the year. Red Bull has performed admirably to recover from a disastrous pre-season, but for Vettel it is about picking up what points he can until the team can catch up in the development race.

Rosberg’s early championship lead ‘a big deal’ to Hamilton

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton is refusing to play down the significance of Nico Rosberg’s early lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2016, calling his 36-point advantage “a big deal”.

Hamilton entered 2016 looking to end Rosberg’s run of three straight victories to close out the 2015 season, only for the German to extend his streak to six by winning the opening three rounds of the year.

Hamilton has suffered a messy start to the season, with incidents in Bahrain and China plus a poor start in Australia limiting him to just 39 points from the first three races.

Rosberg has downplayed the significance of his early lead with 18 rounds still remaining in the season, but Hamilton believes it is important.

“For me that is a big deal,” Hamilton told the official F1 website.

“36 points are a lot of points. It is a race and a bit.

“But there is a flip side to this as well: it is an average of two points per race, so it is possible to make up. As long as it is not impossible, anything is possible.

“I have been racing for over 23 years so I have had a lot of challenges before, and some of them were probably even bigger. From the get go, the first year of racing, the first championship that I have battled in, to the first one I have lost.”

Mercedes worked on its start procedure after poor getaways in the first two races, but Hamilton is happy with his last jump off the line in China – although he did start from 22nd after an engine issue in qualifying.

“I don’t think that I need to do any more [work on starts] now,” Hamilton said.

“I think I had the best start of the entire grid at the last race. We have been working of course on that issue.

“The last two races I have been driving with a loss of performance of nearly one second per race and been trying to climb a mountain with that, which was not so easy.

“I would like to have a good and clean weekend this race – and apply a good start.”

Hamilton will be looking to end Rosberg’s run of victories in Russia this weekend, with all of the action from Sochi being broadcast across CNBC, NBCSN and Live Extra.

Hamilton back on top in Russia FP2

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton topped the charts during second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, the first time he’s led a session since taking pole in Q3 for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Hamilton posted his best time of the session early at 1:37.583 in the Mercedes W07, which was six tenths and change up on Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel’s session was halted early with an electronics issue, which brought out a virtual safety car period with just under an hour left in the 90-minute session. Both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are using a new internal combustion engine this weekend.

Nico Rosberg was a bit further off in third at 0.867 of a second back, before the rest of the session settled into the usual longer runs.

Romain Grosjean had a spin in the Haas but resumed, while Manor had a nightmare session. Both Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto spun and Wehrlein parked on the side of the road right at the checkered flag, having lost power.

The hope is that the race evolves into something more than a one-stopper; Pirelli’s medium compounds are rare this weekend with a majority of the field running longest on the soft compound and also using the supersoft as the sofest compound.

FP3 runs at 5 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra tomorrow morning, before LIVE qualifying airs on CNBC from 8 a.m. ET tomorrow.

Times are below:

Rosberg leads as Ricciardo debuts new Aeroscreen in Russia FP1

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Like in preseason testing, Mercedes AMG Petronas topped the timesheets in first practice for the Russian Grand Prix but the story of the session was elsewhere as one of the new cockpit enhanced devices made its debut at the start of practice.

Nico Rosberg was fastest in the W07 at 1:38.127 on Pirelli’s supersoft compound, while Daniel Ricciardo introduced Red Bull Racing’s new Aeroscreen to the world for an installation lap.

The device was installed on Thursday and Ricciardo rolled out with it to start practice. Following an installation lap it was back to removing the device and running in standard configuration. The Aeroscreen is one of two cockpit enhancement devices to have made its debut this year, Kimi Raikkonen having rolled out the “Halo” concept at Barcelona for preseason testing.

Alas in practice, several drivers spun on the low-grip Sochi Autodrom circuit – Lewis Hamilton at Turn 2, Jenson Button at Turn 15 and Sebastian Vettel at the same corner shortly thereafter, and local hero Danill Kvyat later in the session at Turn 17. Jolyon Palmer also had a spin at Turn 17 just after the checkered flag.

Further down the grid Manor Racing had a difficult start to the session with a floor change on Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis and an unspecified technical issue for teammate Rio Haryanto. Both made it out for some laps later in the session.

Rosberg topped Hamilton by 0.722 of a second with Vettel third, Raikkonen fourth and Felipe Massa fifth. Ricciardo was sixth in his usual car configuration.

Two drivers stepped in for race drivers this session, with Russian Sergey Sirotkin ending a respectable 13th in his debut with the team in FP1.

That being said, his number choice of 46 inspired Kevin Magnussen, who was sidelined for the session, to throw a bit of shade on Sirotkin after getting the Romain Grosjean treatment in sitting out.

Alfonso Celis Jr. also ran for Sahara Force India in place of Nico Hulkenberg and propped up the timesheets, 5.305 seconds off Rosberg and a full 3.1 seconds and change behind teammate Sergio Perez in ninth.

Times are below. You can see FP2 live on NBCSN from 7 a.m. ET, and also via live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra.

Ricciardo debuts Aeroscreen in FP1 in Russia (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo has rolled out with the team’s new Aeroscreen, the windshield cockpit device making its formal debut during FP1 for the Russian Grand Prix.

The Australian started the session with the device, ran an installation lap and then brought it in the pits. Once under normal chassis conditions, he ended sixth.

The device is one of a couple being tested in preparation for possible 2017 enhanced cockpit protection, which go along with the regulations, to see the driver cockpit area continue to be improved for safety purposes.

Quick photos of Ricciardo’s rollout are below, along with a couple videos released by Red Bull of the Aeroscreen being tested:

More to follow later today.