Charles Leclerc set a scorching pace on an incident-packed Azerbaijan Grand Prix Friday with Ferrari top of the practice timesheets after an early drain drama that wrecked George Russell’s Williams.
The 21-year-old Monegasque lapped the six km Baku street circuit with a best time of one minute 42.872 seconds, 0.324 quicker than his German team mate Sebastian Vettel.
The Ferraris were comfortably clear of their closest challenger Lewis Hamilton, the champion and overall leader for Mercedes, who was 0.669 slower than Leclerc on a sunny afternoon.
Max Verstappen was fourth for Red Bull ahead of Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas in fifth.
“I think we are pretty strong,” said Leclerc, who scored his first Formula One points last year in Baku and in 2017 won a Formula Two race from pole position just days after his father’s death.
“I am confident with the track, the car felt good today and that’s all that matters.”
Mercedes have opened the year with three one-two finishes in as many races, marking the strongest start to a season for any team since Williams in 1992.
Pre-season favourites Ferrari have managed only a pair of third-place finishes and are 57 points behind their rivals in the overall standings.
The Italian team marked themselves out as the ones to beat following Friday’s running, however.
Fired up after being ordered to move over for Vettel in China and denied a maiden Formula One victory by engine trouble in Bahrain, Leclerc looked like he had the edge on his rivals.
“The Ferraris are clearly very quick and it looks like they’re quite a bit ahead of us,” said Hamilton, the five-times world champion who won last year in Baku and heads into Sunday’s race with two wins from three races.
“It’s unlikely that we’ll find seven tenths overnight but we’ll do everything we can to push the car in the right direction.”
Friday’s running was interrupted by a number of incidents.
The opening 90-minute session was abandoned with 12 minutes on the clock, and only the two Ferrari drivers setting a time, after Russell struck a loose drain cover that destroyed the underside of his car in a shower of debris.
“If that was 10-15mm higher, it was going straight into where I’m sat,” said the Briton, who was unhurt but will need a new chassis for qualifying and the race. “It could have been much worse.”
Replays showed Leclerc had driven over the cover first, with the governing International Automobile Federation confirming a broken mounting as the cause.
Friday’s second session ran the full 90 minutes but was still interrupted by red flags as drivers, eager to make up for lost track time, impatiently probed the limits of the unforgiving layout.
Canadian Lance Stroll, a 2017 podium finisher with Williams in Baku, was the first casualty when he clouted the barriers and broke the front suspension of his Racing Point car.
Daniel Kvyat’s session also ended with his Toro Rosso in the barriers, its front suspension mangled. The Russian, celebrating his 25th birthday, was still sixth.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz was seventh for McLaren ahead of Thailand’s Alexander Albon in the Toro Rosso.
Pierre Gasly, who spun multiple times, was ninth for Red Bull. The Frenchman missed a call to stop at the weighbridge at the end of the session and will start Sunday’s race from the pitlane as punishment for the offence.
Rookie Lando Norris rounded out the top 10 for McLaren.
Hamilton was nearly involved in an incident with Kevin Magnussen, the Dane’s Haas almost clipping the front wing of the Mercedes as the Briton overtook.
Hamilton leads the overall standings by six points from team mate Bottas with 18 of the season’s 21 races, including Sunday’s round in Baku, remaining.
Williams not for sale, says deputy team boss
Williams are not for sale, the Formula One team’s deputy principal Claire Williams said on Friday after reports of possible Russian interest.
There had been speculation that fertiliser billionaire Dmitry Mazepin was considering investing in the former world champions.
Williams told reporters at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that the team was not about to change hands and there had been no recent talks with Mazepin.
“We had a brief conversation in the mid-part of last year, but subsequent to that there have been no conversations,” said the daughter of the team’s co-founder Frank Williams.
“I’d just like to be really categorical about it: Williams is not for sale.
“I want to go out and prove that we can do what we are in this sport to do — and that’s to get back on the podium and to win races again,” she added.
Williams are the third most successful team in Formula One history in terms of race wins, behind only Ferrari and McLaren, but their most recent victory was in 2012 and they are bottom of this year’s standings.
This season has been particularly troubled, with their car late to testing and drivers Robert Kubica and Mercedes-backed rookie George Russell consistently qualifying at the back of the field.
The team lost lucrative title sponsorship from Martini last year and have replaced the drinks brand with telecoms company Rokit.
The team were in the headlines again on Friday after Russell struck a loose manhole cover during the opening practice session in Baku, which destroyed the underside of his car and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.
“I think certainly in times like this, that the team is going through at the moment, these rumours always come up,” said Claire Williams.
“But with a business head on, when your team isn’t doing well selling at this juncture wouldn’t be the right time to do so,” she added.
Mazepin, whose son Nikita races in the Formula Two feeder series, bid for the failing Force India last year through the potash company Uralkali which he co-owns.
Uralkali announced legal action against Force India’s administrators after the team’s assets were sold to a consortium led by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll.
That team are now competing under the Racing Point name with Stroll’s son Lance one of the drivers.