MONACO — With its slow straights and tight corners, the Monaco Grand Prix offers Red Bull a strong chance to secure pole position for the first time this season.
That impression was reinforced on Thursday, as Daniel Ricciardo topped the first two practice sessions ahead of his teammate Max Verstappen. In sunny conditions, the Australian driver finished a fraction ahead of Verstappen in both runs on the tight 3.4-kilometre (2.1-mile) street circuit.
"I feel we set as much of a benchmark as we could," said Ricciardo, who won the Chinese GP last month. "Our long run looked decent. It is not everything around here, but we seem to be good in all conditions at the moment."
Sebastian Vettel was third quickest for Ferrari, and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes was fourth in the second practice, reversing their positions from the opening session. Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari was fifth, and Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes sixth in P2.
There is a third and final practice on Saturday ahead of qualifying.
"I'm sure Ferrari and Mercedes will start to put some more pressure on us. They'll definitely close that gap (in qualifying)," Ricciardo said. "I still feel if we can put together a really good lap we have a very good chance."
Neither Red Bull driver has qualified higher than fourth in qualifying so far.
"We've always had a strong race car, but (qualifying) is where we've tended to struggle," team principal Christian Horner said. "Hopefully with the shorter straights here and with this circuit layout, it offers us our best qualifying chance of the season."
Gaining pole position in Monaco is more crucial than most races because the track is notoriously difficult to overtake on. This suits Red Bull because it neutralizes the superior speed of Mercedes and Ferrari.
"I said the Red Bulls were going to be quick," Hamilton said. "As expected, we struggled a little bit. The car felt good in some places, in others it felt bad."
Vettel won the Monaco GP last year and the German driver needs another strong performance after dropping points in the title race. Vettel is second overall and 17 points behind Hamilton, who has won the past two races with Vettel placing fourth in both.
A red flag came out during the second session, briefly halting it as repair work was carried out on a drain cover near the famed Casino.
Verstappen was summoned to stewards for reversing onto the track in an unsafe manner during first practice, but no further action was taken against the Dutch driver. He locked up his front left tire on the approach to Turn 1 and went off into an escape road. Rather than spin the car round, he reversed back onto the track and Vettel had to cut a corner to avoid him.
Verstappen has been involved in two high-profile incidents this season. Ricciardo crashed into the back of him in Azerbaijan as they fought for position with a podium in sight, and both went out of that race. He also clipped Vettel during the Chinese GP and Vettel finished eighth.
French driver Romain Grosjean, who has failed to finish three of five races so far, twice clipped the barriers in P1. He is the only driver yet to score a point along with Russian driver Sergey Sirotkin from the Williams team.
The nervy Grosjean has a three-place grid penalty for Sunday's race after causing a first-lap crash at the Spanish GP two weeks ago.
More AP auto racing: https://racing.ap.org
Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire