SHANGHAI, China -- Mercedes and Ferrari look set for another tight battle at the front of the grid during this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix after Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen were split by just 0.007s in Friday practice.
The two teams have been closely matched in the opening two races, with Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel winning despite the Mercedes showing superior race pace in Australia and Bahrain.
Hamilton's tiny margin in Shanghai was mainly found in the middle sector of the lap after the Ferrari set faster times in the first and final sectors. Once again, straight-line speed appears to be Ferrari's strength while Mercedes had the edge in the high- and medium-speed corners.
The second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was also in the mix -- just 0.033s off his teammate -- while Vettel remained in striking distance with a time 0.108s off Hamilton.
Once again, it looks as though Red Bull will be just shy of the fight for pole position, with Max Verstappen 0.341s off Hamilton's best effort. And with qualifying engine modes engaged on both the Ferrari and Mercedes -- an option not available on the Renault powering the Red Bull -- that gap is likely to extend further on Saturday.
Daniel Ricciardo was ninth fastest in the second Red Bull after a scrappy lap saw him finish 1.075s off Hamilton. Nico Hulkenberg, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz filled the gap between Verstappen in fifth and Ricciardo in ninth and were all within a second of Hamilton's best effort as Renault and Haas look set for a close fight to be crowned best of the rest.
Over long runs at the end, the Mercedes looked like the strongest car on the ultra-soft tyre and was able to combat front degradation more effectively on what is expected to be a single-use compound in the race. Teams are likely to mix their strategies with both the soft and medium tyres once the ultra-soft has been discarded, and both the harder compounds were tested towards the end of the session. Rain in the final ten minutes brought the teams' long runs to an end with just a handful of drivers going for an exploratory lap on the intermediates.
Behind Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso set the tenth fastest time after benefitting from a tow off teammate Stoffel Vandoorne on the kilometre-long back straight. The extra straight-line speed allowed him to finish the session 0.160s ahead of the Mercedes-powered Force India of Sergio Perez, which in turn held a 0.057s advantage over the Honda-powered Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly.
Esteban Ocon was 13h fastest in the second Force India ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne in the second McLaren and Brendon Hartley in the second Toro Rosso. Sergey Sirotkin was 16th for Williams ahead of the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc.
Romain Grosjean and Lance Stroll finished in the bottom two positions after both drivers spun on their qualifying simulation laps.
Formula 1 Heineken Chinese Grand Prix U.S. coverage presented by Mothers Polish (All times Eastern)
Practice 3 - Friday, April 13 11:00 PM - ESPNEWS
Qualifying - Saturday, April 14 1:55 AM - ESPN2
On the Grid - Sunday, April 15 - 1:30AM - ESPN2
Race - Sunday, April 15 - 2:05AM - ESPN2
Encore - Sunday April 15 - 1:00PM - ESPNEWS
Encore - Sunday, April 15 - 09:00PM - ESPN2