MELBOURNE: Carlos Sainz ruthlessly outpaced Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc and world champion Max Verstappen to clock the fastest time in opening practice at the Australian Grand Prix on Friday.
The Spaniard powered round a revamped Albert Park circuit under clear skies with a best time of one minute 19.806 seconds among his 24 laps, largely on soft tyres.
Early championship leader Leclerc, who won the season-opening race in Bahrain, was half a second slower on 1:20.377, fractionally ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez. Verstappen was fourth, 0.82secs off Sainz.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was seventh as his slow start to the season with Mercedes continued, more than a second behind Sainz.
Haas driver Mick Schumacher, who had a spectacular crash in Jeddah, was slowest, while four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel’s return to action after missing Bahrain and Saudi Arabia with Covid went badly wrong.
After setting some respectable times, the German jumped out of his Aston Martin with 14 minutes left as smoke billowed from the back.
“Forget it, it’s gone,” he said on the radio as the red flags came out and he grabbed a fire extinguisher to deal with the problem.
Sainz, who was second in Bahrain and third in Saudi Arabia, demonstrated speed and control on the parkland circuit, which has seen significant changes this year to make it faster, with more overtaking opportunities.
Valtteri Bottas in an Alfa Romeo was first out and set the maiden lap time of the new-look Melbourne circuit, clocking 1:26.761.
But Verstappen soon powered clear with a 1:21.625 ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris — who finished fifth-fastest — and Leclerc.
There was some early aggro with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll on the team radio complaining “Hamilton impeded me”, with replays showing the British driver moving slowly on the racing line.
The practice was briefly stopped when some bodywork flew off Perez’s car, soon after Verstappen clocked 1:20.909 to improve his advantage.
Verstappen was still leading at the half-way mark before Leclerc pipped him, then Sainz put in two scintillating laps.
It was an eventful practice with Fernando Alonso spinning his Alpine, and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Leclerc both hitting the gravel before disaster struck Vettel.