Sainz leads Ferrari 1-2 in Sao Paulo GP free practice

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Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc concluded Friday’s single practice session in Sao Paulo at the top of the timesheet, handing Ferrari an early lead over its rivals.

Contrary to most of its direct rivals, the Italian outfit’s drivers set their flyers on the soft compound while George Russell, who clocked in second for Mercedes, relied on the medium rubber.

Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg also made good use of the softs, the German setting the fourth quickest lap ahead of the Williams of Alex Albon. Neither Red Bull nor McLaren’s drivers figured among the top ten, with both teams choosing to run exclusively on the hard rubber.

A sprint weekend naturally means that Friday is qualifying day while FP1 is earmarked as the only practice session of the weekend, which signifies that teams – like in Austin two weeks ago – only have 60 minutes to optimize and freeze their car’s settings for the remainder of the event.

With that in mind, Mercedes and Ferrari will likely take a cautious approach to their set-up work to avoid the risk of excessive floor plank wear – a big topic lately – and a costly disqualification that comes with it.

To make things interesting, weather forecasts were calling for rain to fall before the start of qualifying while there was a 20% chance of things getting slippery in FP1.

But in the interim the field took to a dry circuit amid 43°C track temps and 30°C air temps.

Verstappen set the early pace in the session despite the Dutchman complaining about a seat that wasn’t fitted correctly. Behind the Red Bull leader, Perez was close behind in second place.

Practically the entire field had opted for hards at that point, which encouraged AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda to switch to the mediums and hammer in a 1m12.802s that shot the Japanese charger to the top of the timesheet.

Russell followed Tsunoda’s lead and also bolted on a set of mediums that propelled him to the top with a 1m11.865. Both Alonso and Verstappen improved to slot it second and third although they remained committed to the hard tyre.

For good measure, Haas went one compound better as it fitted softs to Kevin Magnussen’s VF-23, the Dane putting in a flyer that was good for fourth.

That result prompted Hulkenberg to follow suit, the German beating his teammate and elevating himself to P2, seven-tenths clear of Magnussen. However, an on-track brush with Norris ahead of his hot lap caught te attention of the stewards who were due to investigate the incident after the session.

As the running entered its final fifteen minutes, and with a track now starting to properly rubber in, a strong effort by Albon on the softs popped the Williams charger up to third while Lance Stroll, on the mediums, banged in a time good enough for fourth.

While Red Bull continued to rely exclusively on the hard rubber, as did McLaren, Ferrari fitted softs to both its cars. The move sent Sainz to the top of the timesheet with a 1m11.732s, with Leclerc propping himself up to second, 0.108s behind his teammate.

The session thus concluded with the Scuderia leading the field from Russell, Hulkenberg and Albon who wrapped up the top five. Behind followed Stroll, Gasly, Zhou, Sargeant and Magnussen.

The second half of the group featured an unusual amount of front-runners, including Alonso, Hamilton, both Red Bull’s and both McLaren who closed out the field.

But come qualifying in a few hours, the running order will most likely be turned on its head!

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