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Vettel on top in Russia opening practice, Hamilton third

Sebastian Vettel trails Lewis Hamilton by 40 points in the drivers’ standings © AFP / Alexander NEMENOV

SOCHI, Russian Federation, Sep 28 – Sebastian Vettel topped the times for Ferrari in Friday’s opening free practice for the Russian Grand Prix as championship leader Lewis Hamilton wound up third.

The four-time champion German, who trails Hamilton by 40 points in the title race, clocked a best lap in 1min 34.488sec round the medium-speed Sochi circuit on the shores of the Black Sea.

That lifted him 0.285 seconds clear of nearest rival Max Verstappen of Red Bull and Hamilton, who was three-tenths down on Vettel’s pace in his Mercedes.

Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas was fourth ahead of Renault-bound Australian Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull and job-hunting Frenchman Esteban Ocon of Force India.

Kimi Raikkonen, who is set to leave Ferrari for Sauber next year, was only seventh ahead of Kevin Mangussen of Haas, Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and Antonio Giovinazzi of Sauber.

Ricciardo suffered likely engine problems in the final part of the session when smoke billowed from the rear of his car as he was wheeled back into the Red Bull garage.

Shortly before the session, the Haas team confirmed they had resisted temptation when they announced an unchanged driver line-up for next year.

The American team, which entered F1 in 2016, said the sometimes wayward Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Magnussen, a bullishly competitive Dane, were set to continue despite rumours of a possible change.

“We’ve improved drastically from last year to this year, so retaining both drivers was a pretty easy decision,” said team chief Guenther Steiner in a statement. “From the beginning, we needed experienced drivers and we have two very good ones.”

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Grosjean, 32, has a reputation for speed and occasional lapses which have resulted in accidents and after starting this season without a point in the opening eight races, his future was under scrutiny.

He was given two penalty points in Singapore after ignoring blue warning flags when race leader Hamilton was set to lap him.

That incident enlarged his current total to nine points and he and the team know that another indiscretion could see him pass 12 and face an automatic suspension.

“He should be very careful, but I think he knows that,” said Steiner.

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