Max Verstappen opened the British Grand Prix with the fastest time in first practice despite the Red Bull Racing drivers expecting a difficult weekend at Silverstone.
Verstappen was 0.474s quicker the Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton, but the Dutchman spent much of the session gathering data on a series up upgrades to his RB16. The car has proved unpredictable to drive so far this season, and the team isn’t expected to compete with Mercedes until it can get on top of its aerodynamic problems.
But Mercedes had concerns of its own coming into first practice. Title leader Hamilton had to run with a new MGU-K, his second of two units permissible for a season. The new specification targets improved reliability for the Mercedes power unit, the Briton getting the update a week ahead of schedule as a precaution after detected anomalies during the Hungarian Grand Prix two weeks ago.
Snapping at Hamilton’s heels and ready to capitalize on any problems was Lance Stroll. The Racing Point driver was disappointed to miss out on a podium in Budapest after qualifying in the top three, and the Canadian was a little more than a tenth of a second shy of the Mercedes driver at the end of the session.
However, the spotlight at Racing Point was on the neighboring garage, where Nico Hulkenberg made his Formula 1 return substituting for Sergio Perez, who has been indefinitely sidelined after contracting COVID-19.
It was Hulkenberg’s first taste of F1 machinery since leaving Renault after the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and he ended the session ninth and less than 0.6s slower than his new teammate and 1.17s off the headline pace.
The session didn’t run perfectly for the German, though. With a larger frame than Perez, Hulkenberg complained of numbness in his right buttock part of the way through the session and was forced to momentarily back off to recover.
Splitting the pink cars was Alex Albon, who was 0.7s slower than his time sheet-topping teammate. The Thai ran with aero rakes early in the session to play his part in the upgrade analysis.
Charles Leclerc was fifth for Ferrari, 0.8s off the pace. He was effectively the Scuderia’s only runner of the morning after Sebastian Vettel withdrew with an intercooler problem after only two untimed laps.
Valtteri Bottas was sixth quickest and a second back, fractionally ahead of Renault teammates Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo. Daniil Kvyat completed the top 10 behind Hulkenberg.
The session was largely clean and uneventful despite the temperature hovering at around 86 degrees F with the notable exceptions of the Alfa Romeo drivers, who both suffered high-profile spins.
Kimi Raikkonen found the gravel at the exit of Luffield in a moment of oversteer, though the Finn was able to return to the pits unscathed. Just minutes later Antonio Giovinazzi spun backwards out of Becketts. The Italian came off the worse, flat-spotting his tires so severely that they delaminated on the way back to the pits, destroying parts of his floor. The debris subsequently triggered a red flag to clean the circuit.
His actions caught the attention of the stewards, who will investigate the incident after the session.