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Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco steers his car during the second practice session for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia. Image Credit: AP

Melbourne: Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc led today’s second practice session for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix, with defending series champion and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in second.

Leclerc had a time of 1 minute, 18.978 seconds on the revamped Albert Park layout, with Verstappen .245 seconds behind. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who led after the first practice session, was third-fastest.

Local hope Daniel Ricciardo in a McLaren was 10th fastest and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes 13th.

There will be another practice session on Saturday ahead of later afternoon qualifying for Sunday’s race.

Opening race

Leclerc won the opening race of the season in Bahrain and Verstappen took the second in Saudi Arabia, both in March.

In a major renovation to the Melbourne track, five corners were reprofiled at Albert Park and two were removed completely, meaning practice times were generally five seconds faster than in previous races, making previous track records meaningless.

The practice sessions Friday came 756 days since the 2020 race canceled at the last minute due to the COVID-19 pandemic with spectators lining up at the gates for the first practice session on Friday, March 13 of that year.

Sainz and Leclerc were one-two in the first practice, but Spanish veteran Sainz cautioned against expecting too much of his Ferrari team. That’s despite Leclerc’s win and a second place and Sainz a third and a second in the first two races.

“We keep saying that Red Bull and Mercedes are the favorites because we haven’t been in a title fight in the last few years,” Sainz said. “We are still super cautious. We know we have put together on track a great car but these two teams have been in the title fight for the last two or three years. They know how much they need to improve, they know exactly what they need to do. And we maybe are lacking that bit of experience.”

Too early

Leclerc said similar. “Even though we are leading . . . we have only done two races so it’s still pretty early to think about the championship,” Leclerc said.

Leclerc said before the first practice session that he felt the track renovations might give an advantage to Red Bull.

“For our car, I would prefer to stay with the old layout but that’s only from a performance point of view,” Leclerc said. “The only reason why I’m saying that is because Red Bull seems to be very strong in the straight lines . . . and there are quite a lot of straight lines in general now, so we might struggle a bit more.”

After two races, Leclerc leads the drivers championship with 45 points, followed by Sainz (33) and Verstappen (25).