Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas were separated by just 0.072s in the opening practice session for the Monaco Grand Prix.
With Mercedes running a Niki Lauda tribute on its cars — one of many teams to do so following the death of the three-time world champion on Monday — championship leader Hamilton set the pace with a 1m12.106s as all of the best times came on the softest tire compound.
As familiar as it was to see Mercedes leading the way, Verstappen marked Red Bull out as a threat by as good as matching Hamilton’s time. Verstappen had called Mercedes the clear favorite on Wednesday, but he was just 0.059s off Hamilton, despite a minor off late in the session.
Verstappen went straight on at Mirabeau and couldn’t get the car to reverse properly up the hill, so had to employ the help of the marshals to push him back onto the circuit before he was able to continue.
The Red Bull driver split the Mercedes pair, with Bottas 0.013s slower than Verstappen at the end of the opening hour and a half. Bottas was one of a number of drivers to use the run-off area at Ste Devote, locking up and going straight on before spinning his car around.
Fourth was home favorite Charles Leclerc for Ferrari, just 0.361s off Hamilton as the top three teams were closely matched. Sebastian Vettel backed up his team-mate in fifth place – albeit nearly three quarters of a second off the pace – but also had an off-track moment when he went straight on at the first corner.
Of note for the two Ferrari drivers was their helmet designs, with Vettel running a red Niki Lauda tribute helmet, while Leclerc has a half-and-half design dedicated to his father and Jules Bianchi.
Pierre Gasly was sixth fastest but had a big moment at the Swimming Pool, catching the rear as it stepped out on him in the middle of the sector and just avoiding the barrier on the outside of the track. Less lucky in a similar situation was Robert Kubica, who lost control exiting Casino Square and slid sideways down the track, just touching the barrier with the nose of his Williams before returning to the pits.
There was a bizarre moment when both Haas cars were black-flagged from the session after 18 minutes, forcing them into the pits. It transpired that the team did not have radio contact or telemetry for either car, meaning it was reliant on pit boards and unable to communicate with its drivers. When both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen failed to react to calls to pit, Haas asked the FIA to intervene in order to ensure they came back to the garage.
Both were drivers able to rejoin late in the session, and duly secured places in the top 10 — Magnussen in eighth and Grosjean 10th — behind Nico Hulkenberg in seventh and separated by Kimi Raikkonen in ninth.
Lando Norris was another driver to lock up and goes straight on at Ste Devote, but his McLaren teammate Carlos Sainz had a much more frustrating session as the team suffered what it described as “a communication issue between the ERS and energy store,” resulting in him completing just four laps.