SPIELBERG, Austria (AFP) - Nico Rosberg dominated an incident-filled opening day of rain-hit free practice for this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, topping the times in both sessions ahead of Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
The German, who turned 31 on Monday, clocked the fastest lap in both the dry and the wet after a downpour interrupted the action in the afternoon when Hamilton, tenacious and fast as ever, was only 0.019 seconds adrift.
Rosberg recorded a best lap in one minute and 7.967 seconds to outpace his British rival at the Red Bull Ring, in the Styrian Alps, where he seeks to complete a hat-trick of successive victories in Sunday’s race.
Nico Hulkenberg was third fastest for Force India, six-tenths of a second behind the two Mercedes men, ahead of Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari.
Vettel spun his car in the final minutes, losing control ahead of Turn Two where he ended up ‘beached’ in a gravel trap and caused the deployment of a Virtual Safety Car to conclude the session.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo was fifth fastest in the leading Red Bull on the team’s ‘home’ Red Bull Ring circuit ahead of Carlos Sainz for Toro Rosso.
Rosberg is seeking his third successive victory since the Austrian Grand Prix rejoined the calendar in 2014 to take clear control of the drivers’ championship in which he leads Hamilton by 24 points.
Vettel’s spectacular spin at the end of the session was caused, he said later, by a problem with the brakes of his car. He will face a five-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race after Ferrari decided to change his car’s gearbox.
“We had an issue with the brake distribution,” said Vettel.
“It caught me by surprise, but it didn’t matter too much as, fortunately, nothing happened. I lost a couple of minutes so it didn’t make a big difference.
“We had a decent day and we are not entirely clear where we are, in competitive terms, because we didn’t have much running in the afternoon. I think we should be ok.”
Vettel’s problems were as nothing compared to those of Dutch teenager Max Verstappen who was involved in two incidents in the morning that damaged his Red Bull car.
One came at Turn Eight and the other at Turn Five, the second resulting in a premature end to his involvement after running over new – and controversial – yellow kerbs, dubbed ‘baguettes’ by the teams.
“I understand we have to respect the track limits,” he said.
“But it’s better to put a wall there. I mean, I destroyed two front wings and a front suspension today and, yeah, I think it’s too high.
“I try to avoid them, but at Turn One I think it would be better just to have one straight kerb rather than several small ones. They are hard for the car – harder than I expected.”
Looking ahead to qualifying and the race, Verstappen admitted he was hoping the wet weather would return.
“I hope it rains, with storms,” he said. “That would be good for us.”