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Hamilton sets pace in practice session as F1 debuts in Saudi

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton made the early running on the new track in Jeddah as he clocked the fastest time in both practice sessions on Friday for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The Mercedes driver, who will race in support of human rights and the LGBTQ+ community this weekend by wearing a rainbow-coloured helmet, posted a quickest time of 1min 29.786secs in the first session on the new street circuit.

He later eclipsed that with 1min 29.018secs under the lights in the curtailed second session.

It was the first time that the drivers had come up against the new Jeddah Corniche circuit with its series of high-speed bends which proved too much for Charles Leclerc who ploughed his Ferrari into the wall at Turn 22 towards the end of the second session.

The Monegasque, who still pulled the 10th fastest time, confirmed he was okay over the radio but the session was red flagged and was not resumed.

Other drivers appeared to give the thumbs-up to the new track.

“This track is cool,” Valtteri Bottas told Mercedes engineers during the first session before clocking the day’s second quickest time of 1min 29.079secs, just 0.61secs behind his teammate.

AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly was third quickest, ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who went round in 1min 29.213secs.

Verstappen takes an eight-point lead over Hamilton into the penultimate race of the season and could potentially win the title on Sunday.

Hamilton has won the last two races in Brazil and Qatar to trim Verstappen’s advantage but if the Dutchman wins on Sunday and Hamilton finishes outside the top six it will be the Red Bull man who takes his crown.

The Alpines of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were fifth and sixth quickest, ahead of the other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz, Yuki Tsunoda in the second AlphaTauri and Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez who appeared to struggle with the circuit.

Hamilton said there are differences in this title fight from his previous battles, but the British driver said he’s never been more relaxed.

“It’s different in one sense because we’ve got two incredibly close teams,” Hamilton said.

“It’s different because as a team we’re fighting for uncharted territory. No one has ever won eight titles, team or driver, so that’s quite fresh and new. And then on the other side, I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been because I’ve been around a long time. It’s not my first.”

Hamilton has shaved 11 points off Verstappen’s lead in the last two races.

Meanwhile, Mercedes Formula One chief Toto Wolff on Friday apologised for “additional hurt” to families of the victims of a deadly London tower blaze after the world champions signed a sponsorship deal with a firm linked to the disaster.

British Housing Minister Michael Gove and survivors of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people, criticised the team for the deal with the Kingspan company whose branding will be visible on their cars.

The Irish company produces insulation and cladding products.

Survivors group Grenfell United said, in a posting on Twitter, that the partnership was “truly shocking”.

In an open letter to relatives, Wolff stopped short of saying Mercedes would review the deal but apologised for any upset caused by the link-up.

“The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire was beyond imaginable to me, and it should never have happened,” he wrote.

“On behalf of our team, I would sincerely like to apologise to you for the additional hurt that this announcement has caused. It was never our intention to do so.”

Gove said on Twitter he was “deeply disappointed” that Mercedes were taking sponsorship from Kingspan while an inquiry was on-going.

He said: “I will be writing to Mercedes to ask them to reconsider. The Grenfell community deserves better.”

Wolff insisted that Mercedes had carried out a full audit of Kingspan before penning the deal and has also offered to meet families of the bereaved.

“The work of the public inquiry to establish the full causes of the tragedy is crucially important,” he added.

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