MONACO, May 23 (Reuters) - Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton led the way for grieving Mercedes in first practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday.
The Briton, excused media duties following the death of Mercedes’ non-executive chairman and triple world champion Niki Lauda, lapped the treacherous street circuit with a best time of one minute 12.106 seconds.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was second fastest, just 0.059 behind Hamilton, with Valtteri Bottas third in the other Mercedes.
Charles Leclerc, hoping to become the first Monegasque to stand on his home podium since Louis Chiron in 1950, was fourth fastest for Ferrari with four times champion team mate Sebastian Vettel fifth.
Hamilton leads Bottas in the championship by seven points with the Mercedes drivers winning the first five races in one-two formation.
Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren all carried tributes to Lauda on their cars with Mercedes team members also wearing black armbands.
Vettel wore a helmet modelled on one of Lauda’s, with the Austrian’s name on. Two of Lauda’s three titles were won with the Italian team.
The opening session was clear of crashes, although there were the inevitable near-misses on a tight and twisty circuit where cars skim the metal barriers and brush the unforgiving walls.
Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly had a close escape at the exit to the first swimming pool chicane, but ended up sixth fastest, while Robert Kubica spun at the exit to Casino Square but came to a halt without serious damage.
McLaren had a difficult session with Carlos Sainz failing to set a lap time and Lando Norris only 15th. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)