JEDDAH: History was made on Friday as Formula One drivers took to the streets of Jeddah to get to grips with the circuit during the opening practice sessions ahead of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday.
Months of hard work and planning came to fruition as Lewis Hamilton pipped his title rival Max Verstappen by five hundredths of a second in the first session, and stretched the margin further ahead of the pack in the second evening session.
The two world championship title contenders were clear of their rivals and well on top during the first two sessions, to the delight of the crowds in the grandstands.
All eyes will be on Jeddah on Sunday for the race, but for a fully focused Hamilton and Verstappen, Friday was all about finding an early edge in one of the tightest F1 championship battles for years.
Teams wasted no time getting drivers out on track to collect data on the championships’ newest circuit, and it was a good first run out for the drivers, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas claiming third in the first session — while the honor of first F1 driver round the record-breaking Jeddah Corniche went to Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr.
Grip was expected to be at a premium given the new asphalt, but drivers reported it was better than expected.
“Grip seems pretty high in general,” Esteban Ocon said over team radio. “I think it’s a big surprise, everywhere, traction through the mid-corner.”
First impressions of the track appeared positive from the rest of the field with Bottas declaring the circuit “cool,” and Mercedes’ sporting director, Ron Meadows, complimenting Race Director Michael Masi at how well circuit personnel had prepared the track surface overnight.
Hamilton continued his on-track dominance over his rivals as he led the second session by six-hundredths of a second over Bottas, with Verstappen nearly two-tenths back in fourth.
The session was a calamitous one for Ferrari driver Charles LeClerc, who crashed heavily with five minutes remaining, his car suffering considerable damage.
The Monaguesque lost control at turn 22, already pinpointed by teams and drivers as one of the hardest corners on the circuit.
With two sessions under their belt, one at sunset and another under the lights in the evening, the drivers will be looking to push their times down even further when the final practice and qualifying sessions get underway on Saturday.
Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points — with nine wins to seven — and is looking for points in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi to seal a maiden world title.