MONZA, Italy (Reuters) - Charles Leclerc set the pace in practice for his Ferrari team’s home Italian Grand Prix on Friday with Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton hot on his heels for Mercedes.
The 21-year-old Monegasque led both sessions at Monza, the soggy and crash-strewn first one hardly representative after heavy overnight downpours while showers returned in the afternoon.
Fresh from his first F1 victory last weekend at a Belgian Grand Prix overshadowed by the death of French Formula Two racer Anthoine Hubert, Leclerc lapped the ‘Pista Magica’ with a best time of one minute 20.978 seconds.
The youngster had led the first session timesheets with a time of 1:27.905 and is hitting a fine run of form after also dominating practice at Spa-Francorchamps and taking pole position.
Ferrari and Monza are both celebrating 90th anniversaries this weekend, with a big crowd already on Friday and the grandstands festooned with red and white banners amid high expectations.
Ferrari have not won at Monza since Spaniard Fernando Alonso in 2010 but hopes of ending the drought are soaring at a circuit that suits their car’s characteristics, although rain is expected on Sunday.
Hamilton, 65 points clear of team mate Valtteri Bottas with eight races remaining, ended the day 0.068 slower but benefitting from an aerodynamic tow to split the Ferrari drivers.
Sebastian Vettel was third fastest in 1:21.179.
“It was a bit of a challenge today with the weather,” said Hamilton. “It’s kind of a pointless exercise when it’s raining because it’s all risk and no real reward.
“When it was dry in P2 (the second session) it was much, much better for everyone.”
Hamilton said the car was not behaving very differently to Belgium, where he started third behind the Ferraris but finished second.
“We’re quite strong I think on race pace but perhaps a little bit closer potentially on the single lap pace. So it looks like we may have a fight.”
The morning featured three red flags and saw McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris second and third on the timesheets, positions the once-dominant team can only dream of in races at the moment.
Hamilton, last year’s race winner to boos from the unhappy crowd, was fourth in the morning with Vettel only eighth quickest and 2.6 seconds off the pace.
Alfa Romeo’s former Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen and Racing Point’s Sergio Perez both crashed in the treacherous conditions while others spun, including Bottas who ended the first session ninth fastest but was fourth after lunch.
Raikkonen was first off at Parabolica with half an hour completed, while Perez hit the wall heavily at the Ascari chicane.
Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly caused the final red flag when his car hit a kerb at the first chicane and briefly caused an obstruction, before being shoved clear by marshals.
British-born Thai racer Alexander Albon, who has traded places with Gasly, was fifth and sixth fastest for Red Bull in the respective sessions.
Team mate Max Verstappen, who will drop to the back end of the starting grid due to engine changes along with Gasly and Norris, was fifth in the second session.
“We know we won’t battle in qualifying as we will start at the back but looking at the long runs the pace was good and the car felt really nice to drive in all conditions,” said Verstappen, a distant third in the championship.
Neither McLaren featured in the afternoon top 10, with Norris sidelined for all but the last 20 minutes due to an oil leak that took time to fix.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge, Keith Weir and Toby Davis