Lewis Hamilton‘s surge to a potential record eighth Formula One world title continued at pace as he set the fastest time in Friday practice for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
The Mercedes driver has won the last two races to close within eight points of championship leader Max Verstappen heading into the final two grands prix of the year.
However, the title battle was overshadowed during Friday’s second practice session when Charles Leclerc crashed heavily for Ferrari during the final few minutes.
Charles Leclerc suffered a huge crash that saw him wreck his Ferrari late on in practice
The 24-year-old thankfully showed no sign of any serious injury as he leapt from the wreckage
After replacing his steering wheel, Leclerc assessed the huge damage done to his Ferrari
The Monegasque driver lost grip at the rear end of his Ferrari heading into a high speed left hander at turn 22 just shy of 170mph, sending him into a spin towards the Tecpro barriers which cushioned his impact as he collided with it off the circuit.
Leclerc apologised over the team radio for his error, before a check up at the medical centre saw him released back to his team.
Thankfully the 24-year-old suffered no obvious injuries as he climbed out of his wrecked Ferrari, although the extent of the damage done to his car is yet to be fully known by his team who are now expected to work through the night to fix it.
Hamilton was fastest in both the day’s sessions, toping the evening timesheets just ahead of his team-mate Valtteri Bottas with Verstappen around a tenth off in third.
Lewis Hamilton was fastest throughout Friday practice for Mercedes in Saudi Arabia
Hamilton has set a high bar in Saudi Arabia which is hosting an F1 grand prix for the first time
The inaugural race in Jeddah features as the penultimate event in a thrilling championship race
Hamilton led the way off the track on Wednesday, speaking out against human rights issues and the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia, admitting he was not comfortable racing in the country.
But he was certainly at home on the track on Friday, as a time of one minute 29.786 seconds saw him beat Verstappen by just 0.056 seconds, with the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas in third in the first session.
Workers were still preparing the new venue into the late hours of Thursday night, with a planned ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the circuit promptly cancelled as final touches were put into place.
The Formula Two practice session also started late due to a minor “operational issue” before the F1 cars hit the Jeddah Corniche Circuit for the first time at 16:30 local time.
Hamilton also opted to wear pride colours on his helmet to draw attention to important issues
With the track untested and both qualifying and Sunday’s race taking place in the evening, this session was more of a feeling-out hour for the drivers.
But nevertheless, Hamilton will be pleased to top the timesheets, with Pierre Gasly fourth fastest for AlphaTauri and the Aston Martin of Antonio Giovinazzi fifth.
Ferrari were sixth and seventh in the form of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, as Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel rounded off the top 10.