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Leclerc on top in chaotic Austrian practice

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Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc enjoying his practice drive in the Styrian Alps © AFP / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC

SPIELBERG, Austria, Jun 28 – Charles Leclerc topped the times after a gusty wind and a more demanding set of twists and gradient changes served up the season’s most incident-filled practice with two red-flag interruptions at the Austrian Grand Prix on Friday.

Leclerc for Ferrari posted the quickest lap ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly, but it was an afternoon of errors and mishaps that saw three of the sport’s top drivers in dramatic off-circuit excursions.

On a sweltering afternoon in the Styrian Alps, with an air temperature of 31 and the track at 55 degrees, defending five-time champion Lewis Hamilton was fourth for Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel was eighth in the second Ferrari.

Max Verstappen, who wound up ninth, crashed his Red Bull as did Bottas later in his Mercedes, both men escaping unhurt.

“I was already complaining about the wind being tricky and then I got in the corner and the rear turned around,” said Verstappen. “These cars, in general, are really sensitive to the wind and crashes can happen…”

Bottas said: “It’s all ok. I just lost the rear end suddenly into Turn Five. It was very unexpected, I made a correction, but it was a bit too late.

“This afternoon is a bit more windy and the track is very penalising on making mistakes. It can happen I guess.”

While Bottas continued, Verstappen was left to rely on Gasly to give him the long-run data for Saturday and Sunday. “In general, I was happy with the car and that’s what I focused on,” said Verstappen.

“I don’t know if I can get on the second row yet, but we’ll see.”

Carlos Sainz was fifth for McLaren ahead of Romain Grosjean of Haas, Kimi Raikkonen of Alfa Romeo, Vettel, Verstappen and British rookie Lando Norris in the second McLaren.

– Slewed off’ –

Five days after a flat, processional and uneventful French Grand Prix, the Spielberg circuit delivered the busiest and most chaotic free practice of the season, as Mercedes struggled to repeat their customary supremacy.

Hamilton had been fastest in the morning’s opening session, the first time this year he topped FP1, but it was a different story in the afternoon heat as Leclerc set the pace.

The Monegasque driver put his Ferrari on top after 16 minutes and despite being outpaced by Bottas and then Hamilton he found a response that lifted him beyond them again with half an hour remaining.

Track marshals move Bottas’s car © AFP / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC

By then, Bottas was back in the paddock after losing control of the rear end of his Mercedes at Turn Six where he slewed off into the gravel and hit the barriers head-on.

Both front wheels broke free, but were retained in their tethers. “Is he ok?” asked Vettel on Ferrari team radio, just 10 minutes before he, also, lost control of his car at T10 and managed to catch it, in a frantic flash of drama, before he crashed.

He returned to the pits for new tyres as the third of the main front-runners to have had difficulties, Verstappen having smashed into the wall at Turn 10 to bring out the red flags for the first time in his Red Bull after 37 minutes.

The Dutchman, backed by a very sizeable ‘orange army’ of fans, lost the rear end and crashed backwards. He walked, or ran, back to the pits.

In other incidents, Sainz also ran off track at Turn Six where he survived after diverting through a gravel trap and re-joining and then Leclerc almost collided with Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo at Turn Three.

Boring? This session required the spectators’ full attention and proved, perhaps, that some tracks – particularly those with hills, bumps, a gusty wind, twists and turns and, in short, plenty of challenges for the drivers, will create incidents.

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