SAO PAULO (AP) — Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton set the pace in practice for the Brazilian Grand Prix on Friday, keeping Mercedes with the edge in the fight for the Formula One constructors’ championship.
Bottas edged his Mercedes teammate on a warmer Interlagos track than the expected for the rest of the weekend. The Finnish driver had a lap of 1 minute, 08.846 seconds in the second practice session at the Sao Paulo circuit, with world champion Hamilton only 0.003 seconds behind.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished third, 0.073 seconds from Bottas. The Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen ended in fourth and fifth places, respectively, and Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen was sixth.
Mercedes leads Ferrari in the constructor’s championship by 55 points.
Bottas could not say what made the small difference between him and five-time champion Hamilton. He insisted the two Mercedes will have to improve to secure the constructors’ title.
“We can’t be feeling satisfied going to the hotel tonight, everyone will be working,” said Bottas, currently fourth in the drivers’ championship. “It is a short track, so the margin (for improvement) is small.”
Hamilton said he expects the biggest challenge coming from Ferrari, not Red Bull. He said “the car is feeling better than in Mexico,” where he secured his title two weeks ago.
“We got through everything we needed to,” he said. “We just need to keep working on it.”
Vettel said his performance was troubled by a screw that fell between his legs during the afternoon session. “We found it in the end,” the four-time champion said. “We still have to improve the car because it doesn’t feel good yet. If we get the balance in the window tomorrow, then it can be tight (against Mercedes).”
The German driver is under pressure to deliver good performances in Brazil and in the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP after a series of mistakes that left him out of contention for the title.
Red Bull’s Verstappen led the first practice session on Friday, with Vettel and Hamilton close behind.
Ricciardo, who was fourth in both sessions, was handed a five-place grid penalty after Red Bull had to replace his turbocharger for the sixth time this season.
The Australian driver, who was on pole position in Mexico, also started from the back because of penalties in Italy and Russia.
“It sounds really simple and silly, but bad luck really is the best term I can use,” Ricciardo said.
The second session was stopped after nine minutes because Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg crashed entering the front stretch. The German driver was not injured but the car was badly damaged.
Rain is expected in qualifying on Saturday and in the race on Sunday.
For Tomac at Houston, it was literally a tale of two races. Both his heat and the main started the same with Tomac grabbing the holeshot, but he was passed quickly by Chase Sexton in the heat. Tomac faded quickly after getting passed and was trailing by almost eight seconds at the checkered flag, which caused him to retreat to the hauler and reassess his lines. Without making any adjustments to the bike, Tomac entered the Main with a new attitude, and simply rode better.
Sexton had so great a lead in his heat that one could not even use the cliche that he left Tomac in his dust. By the time the rider with the No. 1 plate crossed the same real estate as the No. 23, the dust was well settled. Sexton had a modest start on the initial gate drop and ended Lap 1 in fourth. He worked his way past Aaron Plessinger on Lap 3 and got around Jason Anderson three laps later. Sexton was able to catch Tomac and pressure him, but he picked a safe, i.e. slow line through the sand section and could never get alongside his rival.
After starting the season with back-to-back seventh-place finishes, Anderson now has a pair of podiums. He won his heat and was easily one of the top three riders in the field, ultimately finishing behind the riders who finished 1-2 in the other preliminary. Anderson was subdued on the podium – happy he was there, but disappointed he has not yet found a way around the riders he is chasing in the points.
In the early stages of the race, Plessinger appeared to have a bike capable of winning. He pressured Tomac on the first two laps and was setting up the pass just as a red flag waved for an injury to Dylan Ferrandis that brought out a red flag. He lost second to Anderson on the restart and eventually slipped to fourth to score his first top-five of the season.
Cooper Webb rounded out the top five. Along with Sexton, he is now one of just two riders with a sweep of that mark in 2023, but with Tomac’s three wins, he is beginning to slip in the points. Webb sits third in the standings, 12 points behind the leader.
Ken Roczen entered the race as the third rider with a sweep of the top five and progressively better results in the first three races of 2023. Had the pattern held, he would have finished at least second, but he struggled for most of the night, finishing fifth in his heat and eighth in the Main. There may have been extenuating circumstances, however. Ferrandis’ injury was suffered when he landed on the back of Roczen’s bike and potentially damaged the No. 94 Suzuki.
The 250 East division made their 2023 debut in Houston, but the name atop the board was familiar. Hunter Lawrence joined his brother Jett Lawrence as the early points’ leader in their respective divisions, but it didn’t come without a little anxiety.
Riding behind Supercross newbie Tom Vialle on the second lap, Lawrence was forced to take evasive action when the leader pitched his bike sideways to scrub speed over a jump. Lawrence veered left and landed off course, but he cleared the Tuff Blox and kept his bike straight. Lawrence made the pass for the lead on Lap 18 and never relinquished it.
England’s Max Anstie made the move from 450s to 250s this year after scoring a best result of 11th on the big bike at Anaheim 2 last year. It didn’t take anytime at all to find the front for Anstie, who finished second in both his heat and main.
It has been a while since Jordon Smith stood on the podium: February 23, 2019 to be exact when he finished that well in Detroit. A series of injuries kept him off the bike for much of 2020 and 2021, but he’s proving to be a factor when he’s healthy.
There was a lot of hype surrounding the debut of Haiden Deegan in the 250 class and he proved it was merited. He finished fourth in his heat and main. He was as far down as ninth at one point in the feature before slowly picking off riders on his way to the front.
Jeremy Martin finished fifth and now has a streak of three consecutive top-fives to his credit stretching back to last year. Unfortunately, his pair of strong runs in 2022 were interrupted by injury.
Making impressive debuts in the 250 division, Vialle recovered from a fall to finish seventh, Chance Hymas finished eighth, and Talon Hawkins just missed the top 10 with an 11th.