CLICK: Full GP2 Friday practice session times from Sochi Autodrom
Jolyon Palmer needs just eight points more than Felipe Nasr at Sochi in order to secure the 2014 GP2 Series championship, and he got his weekend off to the perfect start by going half a second faster than anyone else in practice on Friday morning.
"I'm looking forward to my first trip to Russia and driving a new track in Sochi," said Palmer, who is also seeking to extend his current GP2 record of scoring points in every race so far this year. That includes three wins that have contributed to his 41 point lead in the drivers' standings, including victory last time out in Monza.
The unknown quantity of a brand new track this weekend seemed not to bother Palmer in the slightest. "The track will be new for everyone so getting up to speed will be important," said Palmer just before his first taste of the 3.634-mile, 18-turn circuit at Sochi Autodrom. "At the moment I don't know what to expect so I'm looking forward to getting out there to find out!"
The DAMS driver immediately made his intent clear by topping the timesheets with a lap of 1:48.816s just seven minutes into the session, which he soon improved further to 1:47.287s to keep him ahead of ART's Stoffel Vandoorne. Palmer survived a lurid backend slide on his next flying lap and opted to head to the pits for some fine-tuning, and his absence allowed Vandoorne to take control of proceedings with a laptime of 1:46.740s.
Arthur Pic was looking strong in the #26 Campos Racing as he slotted into second place, and Palmer's title rival Felipe Nasr also found a good turn of speed to power his Carlin to third fastest just before the midway point of the 45-minute session which was held under perfect blue skies and sparking sunshine.
With most cars taking a brief break on pit lane, Mitch Evans took advantage of the lull in on-track activity to give the home fans something to cheer about by putting the Russian Time car into second spot just 0.048s behind Vandoorne, while Pic also came back out on a mission and managed to retake third place.
Even though everyone was pushing hard, no one appeared able to quite top Vandoorne's benchmark time, although Evans was able to trim the gap to the ART gap down to 0.023s despite a lock-up on his flying lap.
After a spell during which it appeared that everyone might have put in their best runs on the available tyres, Johnny Cecotto Jr. sprang up into third place with a time of 1:46.889s in the Trident and Pic immediately fought back with a better time of his own of 1:46.808s to retake the spot despite being slightly held up by traffic in the process.
When he attempted to improve further, Cecotto subsequently spun off at T7 on his next effort, but he was able to get going again and returned to the pits under his own steam. The same couldn't be said for Julian Leal whose Carlin ground to a halt at turn 1 early in the session, or Daniel Abt who was forced to park his Hilmer Motorsport at turn five at the end of the session.
Despite a spell of local waved yellows for Abt's parked car there was still just time for some final pushes, with Pic finally able to break Vandoorne's grip on the session by posting a time of 1:46.623s ahead of Arden's Andre Negrao.
However it was Palmer who had timed his riposte to perfection. After a quiet mid-session which had seem him seemingly unable to improve upon his opening effort, he suddenly showed his true hand with a thumping lap of 1:46.083s, seeing off Pic by a massive 0.535s as the chequered flag came out to end the session.
By contrast to Palmer, Felipe Nasr ended up just over a second off the Briton's lap. Although he had slightly improved his time to 1:47.123s in the final minutes, the Brazilian's pace was only good enough for ninth fastest putting him behind Vandoorne, Evans, Kimiya Sato, Cecotto and Nathanael Berthon. He ended the morning just ahead of Tio Ellinas who is returning to action this weekend as a late-notice replacement for an injured Adrian Quaife-Hobbs in the Rapax #14.
All 26 drivers will be back in action later today when qualifying takes place later the same day at 4pm (1pm BST). The 30-lap feature race 1 takes the green flag at 4.40pm (1.40pm BST) with the sprint race being run over 21 laps on Sunday morning at 12.05pm (9.05am BST). All sessions will be shown live in the UK on Sky Sports F1.
GP3 practice at Sochi will get underway on Friday evening at 5pm local time (2pm BST).
See full GP2 Friday practice session times from Sochi Autodrom