Published on :
Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) – He was expected at the forefront on a fast circuit which was to suit his Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton confirmed by dominating the free practice of the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, on the new urban circuit in Jeddah on Friday.
Already the fastest in free practice 1 in the afternoon in 1 min 29 sec 786/1000, the seven-time world champion lowered his time to 1 min 29 sec 18/1000 during the second night session, the only one representative of qualifying and race conditions.
Hamilton edged Finnish teammate Valtteri Bottas by 61/1000, Frenchman Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) by 81/1000 and Dutchman Max Verstappen (Red Bull), championship leader but only 4th, 195/1000.
The Alpine of the Spanish Fernando Alonso and the French Esteban Ocon, the Ferrari of the Spanish Carlos Sainz Jr, the AlphaTauri of the Japanese Yuki Tsunoda, the Red Bull of the Mexican Sergio Pérez and the Ferrari of the Monegasque Charles Leclerc complete the Top 10 free practice 2.
These results should be balanced because the Mercedes riders were wearing medium tires, which were slower on one lap than their rivals’ soft tires, and because the traffic slowed more than one rider on this narrow track.
Converting his advantage in qualifying on Saturday at 8 p.m. local (6 p.m. French) then in a race on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. (6.30 p.m.) will be crucial for the Briton Hamilton because Verstappen has a first chance to win this weekend.
Verstappen for the title
The Dutchman can win his first title in the premier category of motorsport, at the end of the 21st and penultimate round of the season, if he increases his lead at the top of the world championship from at least 8 to 26 lengths.
This means scoring 18 points more than Hamilton, at a minimum. For that, the 24-year-old driver would have to finish 1st or 2nd Sunday (which, barring an incident, is well within his reach) and his 36-year-old rival would have to stumble (which is less likely).
Indeed, on paper, the Jeddah Corniche circuit is favorable to Mercedes. This very long track certainly has 27 bends, but they are almost only slight curves, which makes it a particularly fast track. Under these conditions, the top speed of the Silver Arrows must be an advantage.
Surprisingly, on a circuit that the pilots are taking for the first time and which, between high speeds and very close walls, looked particularly tricky, few let themselves be taken.
Aware of the risk, all were wise in free practice 1. In FP2, Haas drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin were scared. Then, five minutes from time, Leclerc, spinning at high speed at turn 23, hit the safety barriers. Result, a seriously damaged single-seater but a driver unscathed.
By hosting F1, like more and more sporting and cultural events in recent years, Saudi Arabia continues its campaign to improve its international image and diversify its oil economy.
Its detractors accuse it of “sportwashing”, that is to say of using these major events to make people forget its breaches of human rights.
© 2021 AFP