Baku: World champion Max Verstappen led the one and only practice session for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix as Formula One returned with a bang on Friday.
A one-month break since racing in Melbourne had given teams the time back at their factories to try and come up with ways to reduce Red Bull’s early supremacy.
Wins for Verstappen in Bahrain and Australia with his teammate Sergio Perez scoring in Saudi Arabia has left the grid playing catch-up on the streets of the Azerbaijani capital.
Complicating matters is the new-look race weekend with Friday morning’s lone practice session followed by qualifying for Sunday’s race.
Saturday is now a standalone day devoted to the sprint, with a shortened qualifying version dubbed ‘the Sprint shoot-out’ now shaping the grid for the 100-kilometre (62-mile) dash.
Notorously hard streets
This is the first of six sprints this season, double the number held in 2021 and 2022.
That gave the practice session on the notoriously hard to navigate streets of Baku added jeopardy, proving encouraging for some like Red Bull but disastrous for others, notably Alpine.
Perez had led early before Fernando Alonso flying this season in the rejuvenated Aston Martin as Lewis Hamilton came in with a brake issue, with George Russell following his Mercedes teammate back to the garage.
Yuki Tsunoda was the first to feel Baku’s infamous bite with a spin in the first quarter of an hour, his AlphaTauri’s rear right tyre ripped to pieces.
Then disaster struck Alpine, flames flickering from the back of Pierre Gasly’s car.
The Frenchman tried to nurse his stricken car back to the pits but with the fire quickly becoming a bonfire he wisely hopped out, prompting the first red flag of the weekend and plenty of work for the Alpine mechanics to get his car fit for qualifying in a few hours time.
Kevin Magnussen’s Haas had also come to a halt, the red flag eating into precious practice time.
Practice got back under way with half an hour remaining but Alpine’s session went from bad to worse with Esteban Ocon’s car back in the garage and up on the ramp “as a precaution”, the team reported.
That’s the last thing the French outfit were hoping for after Gasly and Ocon’s double retirement in Australia.
With Alonso joining the pitlane gang only Hamilton and Oscar Piastri were out on the circuit.
Flurry of activity
The closing 10 minutes produced a late flurry of activity, with Perez displacing Verstappen at the top of the time sheets.
With five minutes left, Charles Leclerc produced a decent time to split the Red Bulls, then the Ferrari driver went fastest only for Verstappen to pip him at the death by 0.037 sec.
Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari took fourth, Lando Norris was fifth in his extensively upgraded McLaren.
Hamilton took 11th and Russell 17th with Mercedes downplaying the subdued showings on set-up issues.