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|'I don't think we're getting the maximum from our car,' said Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton after being outpaced in practice in Sochi AFP/Dimitar DILKOFF|
Hamilton, the series leader and defending five-time champion was fourth fastest behind his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas as the Silver Arrows struggled to rediscover their supremacy on the fast, but tight Sochi Autodrom where they have won every race since it was first used in 2014.
"I think we lost eight-tenths to the Ferraris on the straights," said the Briton. "We've been improving, but still they're improving at a serious rate.
"We've just been trying to figure out how to improve the car, but it's not an easy task. I've heard it's going to rain tomorrow (Saturday) so I hope it is raining ? it will be a lot more exciting if it does."
Mercedes team chief, Toto Wolff that his champion team are struggling. the pace."
"A negative day ? to put it bluntly, we are just off the pace," admitted Wolff. "We're struggling to find the clues.
"I think we haven't really improved. Obviously, we didn't really put a lot of effort into developing the car ? and that might be a reason, but it seems the others have disproportionately gained and we have lost."
"We are just not fast enough because we are lacking the straight line speed and we don't have enough to make it up through the corners."
Dutchman Verstappen, who is set to take a five-place grid penalty for using a new engine, clocked a best lap in one minute and 33.162s to outpace Leclerc, winner of the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix, by 0.335s on a cool and dry afternoon.
Bottas was six-tenths adrift in third, just one-tenth ahead of Hamilton with Sebastian Vettel, who ended 13 months without a win in Singapore last Sunday, fifth in the second Ferrari ahead of Pierre Gasly in a Toro Rosso.
Hamilton added: "I don't think we've ever driven here in the rain as far as I am aware so it'll make it pretty tricky.
"As a track, it's not that easy to overtake, because all the corners are so fast. I can't say it's the best-designed track to be honest, because you carry so much speed through all the apexes of these corners and you can't follow.
"But you do have these long straights to try and make up for it and we've got DRS (Drag Reduction System), but the rain would make it easier to follow because you often choose different lines."
'RED BULL AND FERRARI WERE A BIT TOO QUICK'
Verstappen was happily surprised by his competitive pace.
"The last sector was good all day long," he said. "And if you have a good feeling in the car, then the car really comes to life in the last part.
"That is positive, especially after the struggle in Singapore last week. I think we've taken a lot of steps in the right direction when it comes to finding the set-up."
Hamilton added that he was happy to "see the competition doing well, but we want to be in there fighting... And I don't think we're getting the maximum from our car. It's the key issue of the last three races and we're working on it."
His Mercedes team-mate Bottas, who won in Sochi in 2017 and took pole last year, out-paced Hamilton in both sessions and said that he, too, wants rain.
"Red Bull and Ferrari were a bit too quick today," said Bottas. "Apart from that, it felt good and I had fun, but obviously we need to find some gains to fight for pole.
"I believe Sunday we have a good chance and, actually, I hope for rain tomorrow. I think we might have a better chance in qualifying."
Wolff held out some hope for Bottas, who is something of a Sochi specialist.
"This is really Valtteri's track," he said. "The mirror-like surface is something he likes and he's always been very strong here."
"If we manage to unlock the potential in the car, at least for the race, I think he has a chance to win."
Sergio Perez was seventh for Racing Point ahead of Nico Hulkenberg of Renault, Lance Stroll in the second Racing Point and Red Bull new boy Alex Albon, who endured a frustrating day punctuated by technical problems.