Hamilton concedes Vettel has the advantage in Monaco
Mercedes slip back after second practice session in Monte Carlo
Ferrari’s German driver Sebastian Vettel steers his car through the Fairmont hairpin during the second practice session in Monaco. Photograph: Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images
There were testing times in Monaco for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes on Thursday as the British driver and his team struggled to extract the maximum from their car, before what is shaping up to be a tight battle with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel on the streets of Monte Carlo. Hamilton was well outpaced by his rival in second practice and he and the team were at a loss to explain why.
Buoyed by his win at the last round in Spain, having come back after an indifferent weekend in Russia when he could not find the right set-up for his car, Hamilton had been optimistic that Mercedes had moved further forward and were well-prepared for Monaco. He was fastest in the morning session on a track that was still green, undergoing the first running of the week but he remained only two-tenths quicker than Vettel over the session with the quick runs set on the ultrasoft tyres.
The afternoon proved to be a different story. Making the best of the new 2017-spec cars, Vettel put in the fastest ever lap of the street circuit at one minute 12.720 seconds and was over four tenths clear of the second placed car, Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull.
Hamilton could manage only eighth place and was over a second back from Vettel. “We didn’t have the greatest day today. Practice one was actually really good and we were quickest, but then in second practice we just struggled to extract the grip from the tyres and we were sliding around a lot,” he said. The three-time world champion trails Vettel by six points in the world championship and was hoping to put his nose in front at Monaco.
His team-mate Valtteri Bottas, fourth in the morning session, had similar issues and was 10th in the afternoon. The Mercedes has had issues working its tyres all season: bringing them into the right temperature of their operating window has proved difficult and the window itself narrow. This was a problem they hoped upgrades in Barcelona had addressed and the win there suggested they had been successful. But set-up changes between the two sessions in Monaco have taken the car in the opposite direction. Even when they switched to the ultrasofts at the end of the session it made no appreciable difference.
“I’m not sure why the tyres weren’t working but the difference between the two sessions was night and day,” said Hamilton. “We’ve got some work to do ahead of Saturday that’s for sure but I’m confident the team can work it out.”
Vettel too was perplexed as to the reasons behind Merecedes’ drop in form. “I don’t know what happened to them today, it was a bit weird,” he said. “I was pretty happy in the afternoon. In the morning, I was maybe a bit wild touching the walls a couple of times but the afternoon seemed a bit better. Around here, it’s important to have a good feel for the car, get the lap together. You can’t always go with the one time you set at the end of the day but we managed to put it together and we’re quite happy.”
Hamilton’s team-mate acknowledged that Mercedes had not made the right adjustments, the first time the new wider, faster cars with more durable Pirelli rubber have raced here. “We made some changes between practice one and practice two but we clearly went in the wrong direction – that’s why both of us were struggling,” said Bottas.
Mercedes have one more session on Saturday morning to find form again before qualifying and are looking to address the cause with some urgency.
“After a very positive morning session with both cars and drivers, the afternoon proved more difficult and we clearly took a step in the wrong direction with the car set-up over the break,” said their technical director James Allison.
“We will have a good think about it tomorrow in order to put things right for Saturday. But I think we can be encouraged by the pace and consistency that we were able to demonstrate in free practice one.”
Jenson Button, returning from retirement for one race to replace Fernando Alonso who is competing at the Indy 500 this weekend, took to the wheel of the McLaren with a very solid performance.
Button had not driven the new cars before and there had been some scepticism at how well he would manage, having only done simulator time before this week.
However, the 2009 world champions eased back into the seat with relative aplomb. He was 14th fastest in the first session and 12th in the second. Crucially both runs were without incident and in the afternoon he was just three-hundredths back on his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne, who has been in the car all season. Monaco is a circuit at which the McLaren’s power deficit is negated and Button and the team know this is a prime opportunity to score their first points of the season.