Daniel Ricciardo topped the times ahead of his Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen in Thursday’s opening free practice for this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.
The big-smiling Australian clocked a best lap of one minute and 12.126 seconds to outpace the young Dutchman by one-tenth of a second.
Championship leader and defending four-time champion Briton Lewis Hamilton was third for Mercedes, three-tenths adrift of the quickest time, ahead of title rival and fellow four time champion German Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari.
Finn Kimi Raikkonen was fifth in the second Ferrari ahead of Spaniard Carlos Sainz of Renault and Finn Valtteri Bottas who was seventh in second Mercedes.
Mexican Sergio Perez was ninth for Force India ahead of a controlled Frenchman Romain Grosjean of Haas and Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin of Williams, who bounced back from an early skirmish.
On a bright clear blue-skied morning in the Mediterranean principality, Mercedes were quickly into their stride with both men topping the times in the opening minutes before Red Bull joined the fray in earnest.
Thereafter it was cut and thrust between the two teams in a session of few incidents – Sirotkin clipping the barriers and damaging the right rear wheel of his Williams and Fernando Alonso being sidelined for repairs to a braking issue.
The Spaniard returned to wind up 17th.
As many expected, including Hamilton, the Red Bull drivers revelled in the handling of their car on the tight and unforgiving street track as both Verstappen and Ricciardo topped the times using the new ‘hyper-soft’ tyres on the resurfaced track.
Valtteri Bottas is celebrating the 20th anniversary of fellow-Finn Mika Hakkinen’s sole Monaco victory by wearing a helmet in the design and colours used by the double Formula 1 champion.
In a move that maintains a tradition for tribute helmets at the Monaco Grand Prix, Bottas has adopted Hakkinen’s three blue stripes on a white foundation.
“He won here 20 years ago and that year he also won the title,” said Bottas. “I wanted to pay a tribute. I respect him as a driver, as a guy, and I always loved the paint as well.”
Other drivers including Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne, Monegasque Charles Leclerc and New Zealander Brendon Hartley have revealed special crash helmets featuring a Monaco theme.
Bottas also responded to Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s remarks suggesting a laid-back attitude to a new contract.
“There isn’t any sticking point. There just hasn’t been any rush,” Hamilton said earlier.
“There’s no discussion with anybody else, there’s no consideration for anybody else, it’s just (me) taking my time.”
To which Bottas, who has a one-year contract with Mercedes, responded by saying he hoped both would be with the team next year.
“First of all, I would like to stay here,” said the Finn. “That is my goal for the long term. It would be nice if Lewis wants to stay and finds an agreement.
“I enjoy working with him, I enjoy the challenge he gives me. I enjoy the fact he’s a four-time world champion and at the moment I’m none. It makes me try harder to be better.
“It wouldn’t change my mind that I want to stay here, but I think we work well together.”
When former Williams driver Felipe Massa went to check in on his old team at the Spanish Grand Prix last week, he must have been overcome with relief at his decision to retire from F1 at the end of last season.
The Brazilian had enjoyed five seasons with Williams and was a fan favourite throughout his time at the Wantage outfit, but since his retirement the team have struggled for form, results and genuine class behind the wheel.
Williams are stuck at the bottom of the constructors championship after five races on just four points, seven behind Sauber and 149 points off pace setters Mercedes.
Already, their disastrous start to the season has led to repeated calls for reserve driver Robert Kubica to be promoted to a race seat with the team.
But for all the criticism about their form over the first five races, Paddy Lowe’s ambitious plan will take time to see results, given the inexperienced driver line-up of Lance Stroll (19) and Sergey Sirotkin (22).
Lowe, a former Executive Director at Mercedes, adopted one of the most revolutionary approaches on grid and has gone for a more aggressive aeroconcept change after Williams were so conservative in previous seasons.
However, for all the positivity of changes with the FW41, problems remain with the car and there is no solution how to fix it, especially with no experience behind the wheel.
Stroll is in his second season at Williams and clinched their only podium of 2017 at Baku. After skipping GP3 to go straight into F1, he was criticised for earning his place in the sport with his father’s billion dollar fortune.
But in a fast and competitive environment, the Canadian has nowhere to hide.
One of the criticisms was his instant promotion to Williams after little testing in the car. Fair enough Max Verstappen skipped F2 in 2014, but the amount of hours Red Bull spent to prepare him was phenomenal – and he has since proved his worth on the grand stage.
His team-mate Sirotkin also comes from money and has enjoyed a tough season to date with two retirements and three top-14 finishes. Poor as it looks, the Russian is still a rookie so needs time to learn.
For all the drivers’ inexperience it is difficult to criticise them for their lack of knowledge on how the car feels and pointing out problems that may help the engineers to fix the issues.
Stroll and Sirotkin may not be budding Sebastian Vettel’s behind the wheel, but calling upon Kubica does disservice to them.
The automatic assumption is the Pole can step in and bring the glory days back to Wantage – or at least improve them from their position at the basement of the constructors championship.
The 33-year-old nearly severed his arm in a rally accident seven years ago and only started a remarkable comeback to F1 in November when he completed 100 laps in the first test with the team’s 2017 FW40.
But for all his knowledge and experience, Kubica has been out of F1 since 2010 and the sport has changed so much in those years since. He is clearly a talented driver but needs to get his head around the car and how it works, but doesn’t have the necessarily seat time to do this.
In Spain two weeks ago, he posted the eighth fastest time overall and completed a total of 123 laps – quicker than Stroll – as Williams try to gather data to solver their ongoing issues.
With Williams sitting at the basement of the championship, now is the right time for Lowe to give Kubica a chance to see if he can help revive fortunes at the garage.
Even if his testing speed is superior to Stroll and Sirotkin, he needs to be given a chance on a full race weekend to help rediscover his form and have his abilities tested in a more pressuring environment.
This is the only way for Lowe and Co to fully assess where their drivers are at and whether they need to change or keep their original line-up named at the start of the season.
If he fails to prove himself, then Williams can stick to their original plan of pushing the two youngsters until the end of the season before drafting in a more experienced name.