By Abhishek Takle
BAKU (Reuters) – Charles Leclerc set a scorching pace on an incident-packed Friday at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the Monegasque faster than team mate Sebastian Vettel in a Ferrari one-two on the practice timesheets.
The 21-year-old lapped the six km circuit through the streets of Baku with a best time of one minute 42.872 seconds, 0.324 quicker than Vettel.
The Ferrari pair were comfortably clear of closest challenger Lewis Hamilton, the championship leader and five times world champion, who was 0.669 seconds slower than Leclerc’s best in his Mercedes.
Max Verstappen was fourth for Red Bull ahead of Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas in fifth.
Leclerc, ordered to move over for Vettel in China and denied a maiden Formula One victory by engine trouble in Bahrain, was also fastest in the day’s first practice that was abandoned after a drain cover came loose.
That incident seriously damaged George Russell’s Williams, with the Briton missing the second session.
The Ferrari drivers were the only two to set a time in the opening practice.
Mercedes have opened the season 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 already 57 points behind their rivals in the overall standings.
The Italian squad marked themselves out as the early team to beat following Friday’s running, however.
Leclerc looked already to have the edge at a track where he scored his first Formula One points last year and in 2017 won a Formula Two race from pole position just days after his father’s death.
Friday’s second session was still interrupted by red flags as drivers got to grips with the circuit.
Canadian Lance Stroll, a 2017 podium finisher with Williams in Baku, was the first casualty of the unforgiving track 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, while rookie Lando Norris rounded out the top 10 for McLaren.
Several other drivers spun or went off.
Hamilton was nearly involved in an incident with Kevin Magnussen, the Dane’s Haas almost clipping the front wing of the Mercedes as the Mercedes overtook.
Hamilton currently 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, still to run.
(Editing by Alan Baldwin/Toby Davis)