SINGAPORE: Lewis Hamilton went quickest Friday in first practice for the Singapore Grand Prix, edging out Max Verstappen who is on the verge of retaining his world championship.
The British driver initially complained about his Mercedes having no “driveability” over team radio before scorching round the Marina Bay Circuit in 1min 43.033sec, 0.084sec ahead of Red Bull’s Verstappen.
It was the first time Hamilton had topped the timesheets in any session this year, giving him hope of being able to score a first victory and maintain his run of winning a race in every season since his 2007 debut.
Charles Leclerc, who can prevent Verstappen from sealing the championship in Singapore by finishing higher than eighth in Sunday’s race, overcame early brake problems in his Ferrari before setting the third-fastest time, 0.402sec behind Hamilton.
Fourth was Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, fifth was George Russell in the second Mercedes and sixth Carlos Sainz, who complained of set-up problems in his Ferrari.
Verstappen celebrated his 25th birthday with a cake in the Red Bull team hospitality before the session only to see Hamilton, who has won four times previously in Singapore, spoil the Dutchman’s party.
It had not looked likely early in the session as Verstappen reeled off a series of fastest laps with Hamilton at one point three seconds off the pace.
Verstappen is running away with the title battle but must win Sunday’s race and see his closest rivals falter to clinch with five races to go, or the fight will move on to Japan next week.
Single-lap pace in qualifying is crucial at Singapore, where pole position is a huge advantage on the 23-turn Marina Bay Circuit that affords few opportunities to overtake.
Brakes are all-important on the tight track and Leclerc had problems with his on his first lap.
It forced him back to the Ferrari garage and he only emerged with 37 minutes of the hour-long session remaining.
Russell also had an issue with slowing down, going wide at turn 10 but being able to pull up just in time to prevent him ploughing head-on into the barriers.
The session was interrupted for five minutes by a red flag after Lance Stroll smacked the wall with his Aston Martin’s rear wheel in turn five and had to stop on the track.
Alex Albon completed an encouraging 19 laps in his Williams less than three weeks after appendicitis and complications from surgery. The British-born Thai driver was 16th fastest.
Spain’s Fernando Alonso, who will start a record 350th grand prix in Sunday, one more than Kimi Raikkonen’s previous all-time mark, was 10th fastest in his Alpine.
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