Nico Rosberg made a clear statement of intent on Friday when he topped the times twice ahead of Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton in practice for this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
The 30-year-old German produced a best lap of one minute and 31.001 seconds in the floodlit second session at the Bahrain International Circuit to outpace the defending three-time world champion by 0.241 seconds.
The two Mercedes men were more than a second clear of the rest of the field led by Jenson Button, in a surprisingly competitive McLaren-Honda, who was third on the day that reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne made an impressive debut in 11th.
Button was 1.280 seconds slower than Rosberg, but after their dreadful 2015, this was a major step forward for the McLaren team.
Rosberg’s continuing success, after winning the season-opening race in Australia, ensured he was in a confident mood as he went into the weekend.
“I couldn’t wait to get back in the car after a great weekend in Melbourne and I felt really good out there,” said Rosberg.
“It’s been an encouraging first day for the team. We were very quick on one lap and also on the longer runs, so I’m really looking forward to qualifying and the race.
“I like this track very much. The atmosphere is great and it looks really spectacular driving under the lights in the evening. It should be an exciting weekend.”
Hamilton, winner of the last two Bahrain races, said: “That was a good Friday, overall. The car is performing really well here. There were no surprises or issues to report throughout both sessions, which is always a good sign.
“Understanding the tyres has been the key to our work today as they’ll be a big factor this weekend. There’s some work to do tonight in terms of finding a few improvements from the car and also my driving style.
“I’m looking forward to getting back out there and making some more progress tomorrow.”
Dutch teenager Max Verstappen was fourth fastest for Red Bull ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 champion, and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, in the two Ferraris.
Vettel ended the session watching the action from behind a barrier after a problem with the left rear of his car brought him to a halt at Turn 12.
“The left rear corner was not tight, the nut was not on,” said Vettel.
“We don’t know 100 percent (what happened). I felt, coming out of turn four, that I lost drive so I decided to stop. Obviously, we don’t want to risk or damage the car, but it’s a shame because I wanted to do a couple of more laps.
“You try not to take a risk. It is incredibly important to do the mileage and get the information on Friday, but it is also important to make sure the car is in a good condition for the whole weekend and season.”
Vettel added: “Mercedes is the benchmark, very fast this afternoon and this evening, so they are the ones to beat.
“I think we can be closer — the car feels alright but I think there are bits and bobs we can improve. We will push hard.”
Daniil Kvyat was seventh for Red Bull, ahead of Valtteri Bottas of Williams and his Australian team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who was ninth.
Felipe Massa was 10th in the second Williams.
On his maiden outing with McLaren Honda following the enforced withdrawal of two-time champion Fernando Alonso, the team’s official reserve driver Vandoorne was an impressive 11th fastest.
SECOND FREE PRACTICE
1. Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes-AMG 1:31.001
2. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes-AMG 1:31.242
3. Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren-Honda 1:32.281
4. Max Verstappen (NED) Toro Rosso 1:32.406
5. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari 1:32.452
6. Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari 1:32.650
7. Daniil Kvyat (RUS) Red Bull 1:32.703
8. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Williams 1:32.792
9. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Red Bull 1:32.870
10. Felipe Massa (BRA) Williams 1:32.873
11. Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL) McLaren-Honda 1:32.999
12. Esteban Gutierrez (MEX) Haas 1:33.129
13. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Toro Rosso 1:33.177
14. Romain Grosjean (FRA) Haas 1:33.384
15. Sergio Perez (MEX) Force India 1:33.406
16. Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Renault 1:33.447
17. Nico Hülkenberg (GER) Force India 1:33.570
18. Jolyon Palmer (GBR) Renault 1:33.640
19. Pascal Wehrlein (GER) Manor 1:33.953
20. Marcus Ericsson (SWE) Sauber 1:34.224
21. Felipe Nasr (BRA) Sauber 1:34.477
22. Rio Haryanto (INA) Manor 1:34.562
FIRST FREE PRACTICE
1. Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes 1:32.294
2. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes 1:32.799
3. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari 1:34.128
4. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Red Bull 1:34.461
5. Daniil Kvyat (RUS) Red Bull 1:34.541
6. Nico Hülkenberg (GER) Force India 1:34.601
7. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Toro Rosso 1:34.793
8. Max Verstappen (NED) Toro Rosso 1:34.860
9. Romain Grosjean (FRA) Haas 1:35.000
10. Felipe Massa (BRA) Williams 1:35.006
11. Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari 1:35.073
12. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Williams 1:35.174
13. Esteban Gutierrez (MEX) Haas 1:35.309
14. Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren 1:35.440
15. Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Renault 1:35.490
16. Marcus Ericsson (SWE) Sauber 1:35.728
17. Pascal Wehrlein (GER) Manor 1:36.371
18. Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL) McLaren 1:36.392
19. Felipe Nasr (BRA) Sauber 1:36.719
20. Jolyon Palmer (GBR) Renault 1:36.939
21. Alfonso Celis (MEX) Force India 1:37.287
22. Rio Haryanto (INA) Manor 1:37.714