IMOLA, Italy (AP)Ferrari again looks set to be the team to beat this weekend as championship leader Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. were the two fastest drivers in a rain-sodden first practice session for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix ahead of qualifying for the sprint later Friday.
The two drivers pleased the passionate, red-clad ”tifosi” home fans by exchanging the lead several times at Imola, on the track named after the Italian team’s founder and his son: Enzo and Dino Ferrari.
Leclerc, who has won two of the three opening races, eventually proved fastest, 0.877 seconds ahead of Sainz. It was a fitting way for Sainz to mark the signing of a new contract on Thursday.
World champion Max Verstappen was third fastest in his Red Bull, 1.465 behind Leclerc. No one else was within three seconds of Leclerc. Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton struggled again as the Mercedes driver was only 18th fastest and more than seven seconds off the pace.
It had been raining all morning at Imola, and although the downpour had eased at the start of the session, it started falling harder again about halfway through.
Several cars ended up sliding off the track and Leclerc spun twice. The session was also briefly red-flagged when Lando Norris ended up in the gravel.
Because of the conditions and qualifying later in the afternoon, teams were keen to preserve the cars. However, it was a fine balancing act as this was the first time most of the drivers had tested the cars in the rain, and it was still expected to be wet later in the day.
The Emilia-Romagna GP sees the return of the sprint. Instead of the usual three practices to get to grips with the car, there will be only one practice followed by qualifying on Friday for Saturday’s sprint. The results set the grid for Sunday’s main race and offer points for the top eight finishers.
The rain did little to dampen the spirit of the fans, who finally have something to cheer after several years of disappointment for Ferrari.
Imola returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 after a 14-year absence, but this is the first time in three editions that fans have been allowed in because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 120,000 tickets have been sold for the weekend.
Leclerc leads the championship by 34 points over Mercedes driver George Russell. Sainz is third, 38 points behind his teammate.
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