SEPANG, Malaysia, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Max Verstappen set the pace ahead of team mate Daniel Ricciardo as Red Bull topped the timesheets in a rain-hit opening practice session for the Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix on Friday.
The Dutchman, who will celebrate his 20th birthday on Saturday, lapped the 5.5 km Sepang Circuit on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in a time of one minute, 48.962 seconds.
Ricciardo, who led Verstappen in a Red Bull one-two in last year’s grand prix and was the first to get a time on the board on Friday, finished 0.757 seconds slower than his team mate.
World championship leader Lewis Hamilton was 2.5 seconds off the pace in sixth, behind Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and championship rival Sebastian Vettel, who took advantage of a drying track to vault up the order in the closing stages.
The 90-minute session was delayed by half an hour after a tropical downpour lashed the circuit minutes before the scheduled start.
The clock was not stopped, however, limiting drivers to just an hour of running time once practice got underway with plenty of fresh faces taking to the track for the session.
Frenchman Pierre Gasly, making his Formula One debut for Toro Rosso this weekend after being drafted in as a replacement for the underperforming Russian Daniil Kvyat, was ninth fastest ahead of Renault reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin.
At Sauber, Ferrari-backed Charles Leclerc took over Marcus Ericsson’s car for the first of four practice sessions the Formula 2 leader will drive by the end of the season.
The 19-year-old, strongly tipped to race for the Swiss team who use the Italian manufacturer’s engines and have close ties to the Maranello-based squad, was 16th fastest ahead of Sauber regular Pascal Wehrlein.
Antonio Giovinazzi, another Ferrari-backed prospect, took over Romain Grosjean’s car at Haas, and the Italian, who stood in for an injured Wehrlein at Sauber for the opening two races of the season, finished 19th.
Hamilton goes into Sunday’s grand prix holding a 28-point advantage over Vettel in the overall standings with six rounds remaining of the 20-race season. (Reporting by Abhishek Takle; Editing by John O‘Brien)