MONTMELO, Spain (AP)Formula One leader Charles Leclerc and Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz set the fastest times in the first practice session for the Spanish Grand Prix on Friday.
Leclerc posted a session-leading lap of 1 minute, 19.828 seconds. Defending world champion Max Verstappen had the third best time at 0.336 seconds off Leclerc’s pace in his Red Bull.
Mercedes’ George Russell was fourth, followed by Alpine’s Fernando Alonso in fifth and Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes in sixth.
Leclerc leads Verstappen by 19 points after five races, but Verstappen has been closing the gap after back-to-back wins in Italy and Miami.
Teams often roll out major upgrades at the Spanish GP with a handful of races already in the bag and this well-known circuit, where teams also test in winter, is perfect for gauging progress.
Ferrari is hoping that upgrades it has brought to Spain can help it match the race speed that Red Bull has enjoyed in the last two races, when Verstappen beat Leclerc.
Verstappen said his team is planning to reduce the weight of the car.
”Our car is a bit fat so we need to slim it down,” Verstappen said before getting behind the wheel on Friday.
It appears that focusing on the car’s reliability is the top priority for Red Bull, after car failures kept Verstappen from finishing in Bahrain and Australia, where Leclerc won earlier this season.
”(Ferrari) are coming with a few upgrades so it will be interesting to see what that gives them at the end of the day,” Verstappen said. ”We just need to focus on our package. We want a clean weekend.”
Before practice, Hamilton and Russell both said that they are expecting Mercedes to make some gains this weekend, even if they can’t fight for a race trophy that Hamilton has claimed for the past five years.
”I do believe there is the potential there to be at the front, we just can’t unlock it right now,” Hamilton said. ”I’m keeping my hopes up, pure faith and trusting the team that we’ll get there.”
The best result this season for Hamilton, a 103-time race winner, is a third-place finish at the season opener in Bahrain.
Russell has so far surprisingly outperformed the seven-time world champion in his first year with Mercedes, finishing higher than his new teammate in four of five races.
The practice session featured the F1 weekend debuts of two drivers in testing roles. Juri Vips filled in for Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, while Nyck de Vries drove Alex Albon’s Williams. Vips finished at the bottom of the table, with Vries two spots above.
Veteran Robert Kubica also got a turn for Alfa Romeo in place of Zhou Guanyu.
Race officials expect more than 110,000 fans to turn out for each of the event’s three days after two years of racing without the public due to the pandemic. The face mask that Hamilton wore in the pre-practice news conference was one of the few seen at the track.
Spanish fans are eager to see Sainz and Alonso, the last Spaniard to win the Spanish GP back in 2013.
Hot, sunny and dry conditions are forecast.
The second practice session is later Friday. Qualifying will be on Saturday following a third practice session. The 66-lap race is on Sunday.
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