BY JOSEPH WILSON, Associated Press
LE CASTELLET, France (AP) — Defending Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton topped the charts during the first two practice sessions for the French Grand Prix on Friday.
Hamilton clocked the day’s fastest lap in the morning session and followed that up by steering his Mercedes to the top time in the afternoon.
Hamilton trails Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari by one point at the top of the standings after seven of 21 races.
Teammate Valtteri Bottas also impressed with the second best time of the day.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who is fourth in the standings behind Bottas, was the next quickest driver after the Mercedes pair.
Vettel managed only the fifth fastest time in both sessions.
This was the first chance drivers had to run on the 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) Paul Ricard Circuit, as F1 makes its return to France for the first time in a decade.
The track resting in wooded hills just inland from the Cote d’Azur was basked in the Mediterranean sun and subject to gusting winds.
The morning session ended with a scare for Sauber pilot Marcus Ericsson after his car burst into flames when he spun out of control and slammed into the barrier. The Swede got out of the car unharmed.
Hamilton also had a close call when forced to swerve off course to avoid ramming a slow-going Stoffel Vandoorne and slalomed around two rows of bollards before returning to the flow. Hamilton said on his team radio the McLaren driver was going “dangerously slow” when he came upon him.
Minutes later, Hamilton complained his Mercedes was having trouble turning. After coming back out, though, the four-time world champion quickly went to the top of the timesheet.
Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Brendon Hartley (Toro Rosso), Esteban Ocon (Force India) and Vandoorne all spun their cars onto the blue-striped run-off areas at Turn Six because of a tricky tailwind but managed to stop before hitting the barrier.
Charles Leclerc twice spun to a brief stop, while Max Verstappen drove his Red Bull wide on consecutive corners and Kevin Magnussen had a near miss with Sergio Perez.
Vettel said the winds picked after the lunch break, telling his team it was “quite gusty so, yeah, the track is a lot slower than” during the morning run.
The second session was also momentarily stopped while crews helped retrieve Sergio Perez’s Force India after its back left wheel popped off as he drove over a curb, sending the car sliding backwards across the tarmac.
Fernando Alonso also spun out in his McLaren.
Vettel took a one-point lead in the standings two weeks ago when he won the Canadian GP after starting from pole position. That victory erased a 14-point lead held by Hamilton after he could manage only a fifth-place finish.
There will be another practice on Saturday before qualifying for Sunday’s race.
The last time a F1 race was at Le Castellet was in 1990, when French great Alain Prost won for Ferrari.
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