By Marcelo Teixeira
SAOPAULO (Reuters) – Sebastian Vettel led a Ferrari one-two in practice for the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix on Friday, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen third fastest on an incident-filled afternoon at a damp Interlagos.
Vettel, a three-times winner in Brazil, lapped in one minute 09.217 seconds on soft tyres with Monegasque team mate Charles Leclerc, who has a 10-place grid penalty for an engine change, 0.021 slower.
“I think it was a decent day, we understood what the car needs,” said Vettel. “I am pretty confident we can do a step forwards.
“In the race it will be difficult because others looked quite a bit faster than us.”
Mercedes, who head into the season’s penultimate race weekend with both titles already secured for an unprecedented sixth year in a row, had Valtteri Bottas fourth.
Last year’s winner Lewis Hamilton, now a six-times world champion after ending the title battle in Texas two weeks ago, ended up fifth fastest after failing to set a time in the first session but without any concern.
“We’re a little bit off the pace on the single lap stuff but pretty decent on the longer runs,” said Mercedes technical head James Allison, leading the team in the absence of principal Toto Wolff.
Bottas agreed: “The times at the top look very close, so I think we are actually more competitive than the standings might suggest,” he said.
“I think both Ferrari and Red Bull look very strong but we should be right up there as well.”
The morning was an expensive one for Red Bull, who saw Thai rookie Alexander Albon lap fastest before switching from intermediate tyres to slicks and crashing out, bringing the session to a premature end.
“It was just a cold track,” said Albon of his first experience of Interlagos. “You tiptoe around and you lose brake temperature, so that was pretty much what happened.
“I went to brake and there was nothing there.”
Conditions in the afternoon were better, although still tricky and Verstappen — with a 1:09.351 — was closest to the Ferraris.
“It was a bit of a messy day with the weather,” said the Dutchman, who spun off in the first session moments before Albon. “I think it’s not really representative with temperatures.
“We just have to look at the positives. I think the car’s working well…it’s a positive start. We’ll start over again tomorrow because the weather will be different.”
Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat also brought the afternoon session to a premature end when he lost control and crashed. French team mate Pierre Gasly had earlier pulled over with a smouldering engine.
Robert Kubica sat out the opening session as Williams gave the Pole’s likely successor Nicholas Latifi, the team’s Canadian reserve driver, time in the car.
Kubica failed to set a time on his return, crashing on his first flying lap and halting the second session for several minutes as debris was cleared up.
“Initially I did not understand the accident. However, once I reviewed it, I understood that a Haas had gone off the track a few seconds ahead of me, which pulled quite a lot of water onto the track,” said the Pole.
“It was my first lap on the hard tyre, so with all of these factors, I ended up in the wall.”
(Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis/Ken Ferris/Pritha Sarkar)