Copy of 2021-09-03T111716Z_1035566342_UP1EH930VCP28_RTRMADP_3_MOTOR-F1-NETHERLANDS-1630674364224
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in action during practice. Image Credit: REUTERS

Zandvoort: Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton upstaged Max Verstappen to post the fastest time in a sunny first practice session for the Netherlands Grand Prix today, as the race returned to the country for the first time since 1985.

The Mercedes star was .097 ahead of Verstappen’s Red Bull and .1 clear of Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr.

The session was interrupted after just 20 minutes when Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel had engine failure. The four-time F1 champion grabbed a fire extinguisher as smoke billowed from the back of his car.

It took a long time to get his car off the track and there was no more action.

Orange-clad fans

In the morning, legions of orange-clad Dutch fans packed on trains as they came to cheer on their countryman Verstappen.

The sleepy resort town of 17,000 inhabitants burst to life as locals hung checkered flags from their windows on the road that leads from the train station to the circuit.

About 65,000 fans packed into stands that were at 67-percent capacity because of coronavirus restrictions. All had to show a corona pass to get in.

Their bright orange shirts gleaming against a clear blue sky it made for a glorious late summer feel, while others stood on sand dunes that looked over the venue.

But not everyone was in an upbeat mood, and 10 protesting farmers in tractors parked on a road next to the track a couple of hours before practice started. Environmentalists have made legal challenges to the event, with a judge dismissing a request to halt the race just days before the event.

The undulating 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) circuit is located just outside of Amsterdam. Rising and falling through dunes, it is fast flowing with high banked turns of up 18 degrees offering plenty of chances for overtaking.

There is a second practice later Friday ahead of a third practice and qualifying on Saturday.

Thrilling season

Verstappen trails championship leader Hamilton by three points in a thrilling season so far. He leads Hamilton 6-4 in wins and 6-3 for pole positions but lost many points after crashing out of the British GP and falling back at the Hungarian GP after being bumped off track on Lap 1.

Verstappen won the rain-marred Belgian GP last Sunday to trim Hamilton’s lead.

Hamilton is chasing an eighth F1 title to move one ahead of Michael Schumacher and stand alone among F1 greats.

Three greats finished on the podium here 36 years ago, as the late Niki Lauda won ahead of Alain Prost and the late Ayrton Senna.

Zandvoort first hosted an F1 race in 1952.