ART Grand Prix's Esteban Ocon was fastest in Friday afternoon's GP3 practice session at Sochi Autodrom, when a late run allowed him to pip Jenzer Motorsport's Ralph Boschung by 0.207s despite poor conditions.
CLICK: Full Friday afternoon GP3 practice times from Sochi Autodrom.
Just as had been the case with the F1 practice and GP2 qualifying sessions that had preceded it, GP3's sole track time on Friday was undertaken in wet conditions. With the track already damp from the early rain, the situation became increasingly treacherous as rain started to fall again at the start of the session. As the daylight faded rapidly and night took hold, the track temperatures fell sharply causing an immediate adverse effect on grip.
The session was red-flagged just after Ocon had gone to the top with his lap of 2:09.319s, when Status Grand Prix's Alex Fontana drifted wide and suffered a heavy crash into the barrier at turn 4. Fontana was able to climb out of his car and walk away, but for many onlookers it was proof that the session should have been declared over as the encroaching darkness added to the wet track was making the situation more dangerous by the minute.
However once Fontana's wrecked car was removed, race control allowed the session to resume for the remaining six minutes left on the session clock, and by the time the chequered flag was finally shown it was just three minutes before the official time for sunset.
Although planned for future races, Sochi Autodrom does not currently have have floodlight facilities for its 3.634-mile, 19-turn street circuit, meaning that the drivers were running at high speeds in very low-light conditions exacerbated by the heavily overcast skies.
The decision by race control to allow the race to resume in such conditions was greeted by a storm of criticism on social media, but fortunately there had been no further serious accidents out on track and although there were spins for Artur Janosz (Trident), Zaid Ashkanani Campos Racing) and Alfonso Celis. Jr. (ART) the session concluded without major incident.
Ocon's team mate Marvin Kirchhofer had himself spun at turn 7 early in the session but subsequently went on to top of the timing screens for much of the 45-minute session until being deposed by Ocon and Boschung. He finished the session in third place ahead of Arden's Kevin Ceccon, while championship leader Luca Ghiotto rallied from a disappointing first half of practice to salvage fifth place for Trident by the finish.
Campos Racing's Alex Palou, Koiranen GP's Jimmy Eriksson, Arden's Emil Bernstorff and Status Grand Prix duo Sandy Stuvik and Seb Morris rounded out the top ten.
It proved a disappointing day for Carlin. Jann Mardenborough was on the pace early in the session but then fell to 18th by the end, while his team mates Antonio Fuoco and Mitch Gilbert could only manage 22nd and 23rd respectively.
Even before the controversial end to practice, Saturday's schedule had already been organised to ensure that the GP3 drivers would not also suffer from low-light conditions at the end of the day. Qualifying takes place on Saturday morning at 9.30am local time (7.30am BST), and in a change to the usual routine the 20-lap race 1 is scheduled to precede F1 qualifying and will get underway at 1.30pm (11.30am BST). The shorter 15-lap race 2 will be on Sunday morning as usual, at 10am (8am BST).
The GP2 drivers are also in action this weekend at Sochi. Having completed practice and qualifying on Friday, the 28-lap feature race gets underway on Saturday afternoon at 4.40pm (2.40pm BST), while the 21-lap sprint race will take the green flag at 11.05am (9.05am) on Sunday morning.
See full Friday afternoon GP3 practice times from Sochi Autodrom.