Fresh from his Monaco podium, Sergey Sirotkin proved to be the master of the Red Bull Ring in Friday's GP2 practice session as he went to the top of the timesheets early on and was then able to respond every time that his grip on the timing screens came under attack.
CLICK: Full GP2 practice times from the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria.
Under overcast skies and with black clouds looming menacingly, the track was not back to its best after overnight rain in Spielberg, Austria. Taking immediate advantage of the conditions was Sirotkin, the 19-year-old Russian immediately going to the top of the timesheets in the Rapax, and then quickly trimming his time to 1:17.307s after just four laps of the 2.688-mile, nine-turn Red Bull Ring.
Pierre Gasly was able to improve on Sirotkin's initial benchmark to go top with a lap of 1:16.863s but Sirotkin immediately responded by going 0.531s faster still to reclaim the crown, as Racing Engineering's Jordan King went for a harmless spin as he lost the backend of the #7 going through the final corner.
Inevitably it was only a matter of time before championship leader Stoffel Vandoorne made an appearance at the top of the timesheets, clocking in at 1:16.063s in the ART. Sirotkin's next effort put him just 0.026s behind the Belgian, but after that both he and Alex Lynn in the second DAMS were able to dip into the 1:15s to put themselves ahead of the field with 15 minutes of the 45-minute session concluded.
Vandoorne responded in some style, going half a second faster with a time of 1:15.223s. Nick Yelloly also leapt up the standings with the second fastest time, before Russian Time's Mitch Evans went to the top of the class with a new benchmark of 1:15.201s, as the cars started to filter back into the pit lane for their mid-session set-up tweaks and discussions with their crews.
Once the cars came back out again, Sirotkin was right back on it, pushing to the ragged edge and was rewarded with what proved to be the best time of the session clocking in at an impressive 1:14.880s, while Vandoorne's efforts to get on an even footing with the Russian were thwarted by the amount of traffic to contend with on the unusually short circuit.
Vandoorne and the rest of the field had to temporarily suspend their efforts when Gasly crawled to a halt exiting turn 7 with a little over ten minutes remaining, an apparently terminal mechanical issue on the DAMS forcing race control to declare a red flag to enable the #1 car to be retrieved. By the time the session resumed, there were just seven minutes left on the clock as everyone streamed out, with the exception of Nathanael Berthon with the Lazarus team needing to look into brake issues on the #26 car.
After a troubled and uncharacteristically slow start to his session, Racing Engineering's Alexander Rossi put the final minutes to good use to surge up to fourth place, slotting in just behind Vandoorne and a mere seven thousandths of a second faster than Lynn by the time the chequered flag came out. Unfortunately Rossi's session ended up in some embarrassment: he locked up as he came close to overshooting the entrance to the GP2 garage area, blocking the narrow road and forcing the other cars to take an extra lap of the circuit while the marshalls helped him sort things out.
Meanwhile there was nothing that anyone could do about the top three, with Sirotkin ending the session a full 0.321s ahead of Evans and Vandoorne. Behind Rossi and Lynn, Racing Engineering's Rafaelle Marciello was looking in solid form to end the session as sixth fastest just ahead of the prematurely retired Gasly; Campos Racing pair Rio Haryanto and Arthur Pic were eighth and ninth fastest, with Yelolly pushed back to tenth ahead of King and Status Grand Prix's Richie Stanaway.
Daniel de Jong was 15th fastest in practice in the sole MP Motorsports car participating in practice this weekend. His former team mate Sergio Canamasas had just announced on Twitter that he would not be participating for the Dutch squad in Austria due an "inexplicable situation". The Spanish driver added: "We have not reached an agreement. There is no driver in the car."
It remains to be seen - but is highly unlikely - whether the team will be able to find a scratch replacement in the paddock before qualifying for race 1 which takes place this afternoon at 3.50pm local time (2.50pm BST).
Simon Trummer was the slowest driver of the session in his first GP2 appearance of the season, after taking over the #25 Hilmer Motorsports car from Johnny Ceotto Jr. this weekend. The 26-year-old Swiss driver is no stranger to the feeder series, having run his rookie season with Arden in 2012 followed by two full campaigns with Rapax in 2013 and 2014.
See full GP2 practice times from the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria.