Mercedes retain advantage, Ferrari close the gap - FP2 Report

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Renault driver Sergey Sirotkin of Russia steers his vehicle during the first practice session ahead the Formula One Russian Grand Prix at the "Sochi Autodrom" circuit, in Sochi, Russia, Friday, April.

The trend perpetuated for the rest of the season: Red Bull Racing moved forwards while Ferrari struggled to evolve the auto, and the Scuderia ended the season in despair. "We have started our relationship with a respectable foundation and I think that will continue".

But F1 fans would be wise not to jump the gun, because at the Spanish Grand Prix Ferrari faces the sternest test of its title mettle to date. But we still don't know how it is, so we'll see on Sunday. Just two weeks earlier, Bottas had been asked to move aside for Hamilton at the Bahrain Grand Prix but Hamilton has no doubt his teammate can mount a title challenge this season.

All the teams have brought major aerodynamic upgrades to this race, but the one on the Mercedes is the most visually dramatic, with a new narrower nose and a number of other major changes, and so far it appears to be having a significant effect.

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff says a lot of work has gone into understanding why, but admits there is no automatic fix.

"I feel good. Obviously today I don't feel so good inside the auto, it was quite slippery but I think it was due to the conditions, I think everybody was struggling a bit. It's definitively a step forward and that's good". But, despite a strong start, he was warned a year ago by Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene that he would have to earn his next contract after a below-par campaign.

Nico Rosberg, the victor of the first four races in 2016, won the title with Mercedes last season, while Hamilton won the previous two championships.

Hamilton arrived in Spain determined to make amends for a poor weekend two weeks ago in Russian Federation, where he finished fourth and Bottas won.

"We're expecting some new parts, but we can't really focus too much on performance until we have solved our reliability issues", Alonso said.

Another Bottas win would not be a surprise at a venue that has a habit of producing more different winners than anywhere else - if he is successful, he will be the 11th different victor in as many years. Vettel has 44, McLaren's Fernando Alonso is on 32 and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen 20. I've had some great times there.

Massa, who was team-mate to Alonso for four seasons, said: "If you have a driver in the front, especially Sebastian, Kimi will work the whole year for Sebastian, 100 per cent sure".

"I think Ferrari has, in general, being very good in managing the tyres, so we have been focusing on getting a good long runs' pace to try and do better this weekend".

But Hamilton arrives at the fifth race of the season facing new challengers from both within and without.