SINGAPORE: Lewis Hamilton put on a brave face after his world championship bid suffered a setback on Friday at the Singapore Grand Prix.
A mechanical issue forced him out of second practice prematurely after setting only the seventh quickest lap time.
Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, who is just two points behind Hamilton in the title race, was fastest, ramping up the pressure on the English triple world champion.
Mercedes said there was no major problem with Hamilton’s car, just a “small hydraulic issue” which they were unable to fix in the session, meaning that in total Rosberg enjoyed around 45 minutes more track time on Friday.
“It doesn’t look like anything serious,” Hamilton told Sky Sports. “The guys are working on it and it should be fine for tomorrow, which is the main thing.”
Mercedes struggled in Singapore a year ago and were a second a lap off the qualifying pace set by winner Sebastian Vettel.
But Hamilton said he felt they had closed the gap on the slower street circuit which negates Mercedes power and aerodynamic dominance.
“Our pace looked OK today. Definitely much better than last year so I’d say we’re looking relatively strong.”
Mercedes have won 13 of the 14 races this season so far but Singapore is shaping up into a three-way fight, after Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen went second fastest, followed by the Red Bull pair of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
“The difference with this venue is it plays a little more to our strengths than some of the previous races,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told reporters after practice.
“You can see Mercedes are very quick and the Ferrari are right there also so I think it’s going to be a very close battle this weekend, particularly in qualifying tomorrow.”
Rosberg’s flying lap of the 5.065 kilometer (3.14 miles) Marina Bay circuit in 1min 44.152sec enabled him to bounce back after crashing in the first practice session earlier in the day.
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and Chase Carey of Liberty Media, the sport’s new chairman, arrived at the track in time for second practice and would have liked what they saw at the spectacular night event set against the skyscape of downtown Singapore.
Raikkonen was second fastest in his Ferrari, just 0.275 sec behind Rosberg.
“The first practice session was tricky, I struggled a little bit, but the second practice was good,” said Raikkonen. “Everything worked and the car was handling pretty well.”
Then came the Red Bull of Verstappen, using a new upgraded Renault engine, just ahead of teammate Ricciardo.
Last year’s winner Sebastian Vettel was unhappy to be only fifth quickest in his Ferrari.
“I was not entirely happy with the second session, I was struggling a little bit with the car balance, and therefore not really finding the rhythm but in general it has been a good day,” said Vettel.
Rosberg’s back-to-back wins in Belgium and Italy mean he is breathing down Hamilton’s exhaust pipe in the title race.
And victory in his 200th grand prix on Sunday — he is just the 16th driver in history to reach the landmark — would put the German back on top of the 2016 standings he had led at one stage by 43 points.
Mercedes did not make the podium in Singapore last year as Vettel won ahead of Ricciardo, with Hamilton retiring and Rosberg fourth.