Charles Leclerc set the practice pace in a disrupted Friday at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, besting teammate Sebastian Vettel in a positive day for Ferrari.
The Monegasque, who scored his first F1 points in Baku this time last year, topped the session with a time of 1m42.872s, 0.324s quicker than Vettel and almost 0.7 seconds quicker than Lewis Hamilton in the leading Mercedes. Max Verstappen was fourth fastest for Red Bull Racing, 0.9 seconds off Leclerc’s pace and splitting Hamilton ahead from Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas behind.
Leclerc’s best time was set on six-lap-old soft tires, speaking both to the relative hardness of the Pirelli compounds for the circuit and to the lack of rubber laid into the track after first practice was canceled due to a loose drain cover destroying George Russell’s Williams.
The lack of morning practice left the track dusty green in the afternoon, and the early part of FP2 was characterized by numerous lock-ups and excursions through Baku’s few run-off areas as drivers sought the limit of the circuit’s grip.
Leclerc, pushing the boundaries early, was the first driver to make contact with the walls, bumping the barrier at the exit of Turn 7 around 15 minutes into the session and escaping apparently unscathed, but Lance Stroll, not to be outdone, brought out red flags with heavy contact at turn two just moments later.
The Canadian felt his Racing Point car snap on entry and attempted to abort into the run-off area, but his decision came too late, and he wrote off the front-left corner of his car against the barrier.
The session resumed after a 10 minute-delay, allowing teams to continue their busy run plans in lieu of their lost FP1 running, but Stroll wasn’t the final casualty of the day, with that honor going to Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat when he lost the rear of his STR14 mid-Turn 7 and crunched the left side of the car against the outside wall. The Russian, who turned 24 on Friday, triggered a red flag with less than half an hour remaining in the session but nonetheless ended the day sixth quickest.
Seventh-fastest Carlos Sainz of McLaren split Kvyat from Toro Rosso teammate Alex Albon, while Pierre Gasly in the sister Red Bull Racing car finished ninth ahead of the second McLaren of Lando Norris in 10th.
The session ended with a bizarre incident between Haas’s Kevin Magnussen and Hamilton, who ran side by side through Turns 13 and 14 and came close to a needless collision. The incident is likely to come under steward scrutiny later in the day.
The parts of the session not suspended by red flags were extremely busy on track, with the teams and drivers keen to make up for the time lost to the truncated FP1. Qualifying simulations were pressed back to back with long-run testing, and both Ferrari and Mercedes appeared to experiment with slipstreaming down the front part of the circuit — with corners 16 to 20 taken flat out on the run down to the first turn, the drafting strategy could pay substantial dividends come qualifying on Saturday.
But despite the willingness to maximize track time, team access to tires remained as constrained as it would have done had they run in morning practice, making rubber allocation a limiting factor, particularly given the propensity for lock-ups at Baku’s multiple heavy braking zones.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was one driver to succumb to a lack of tires after a couple of big lock-ups exhausted his allocation of three soft tires. The Australian ended the day 15th on the time sheet ahead of teammate Nico Hulkenberg in 17th on a difficult day for the French marque.
Only Williams was slower, with Robert Kubica 19th and George Russell unable to run due to a changed chassis, with Lance Stroll 18th for Racing Point after his early crash.