Chinese GP: Aston Martin’s Stroll tops free practice in Shanghai

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Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll topped the single practice session for this weekend’s Chinese GP, the Canadian setting his fastest lap in the closing stages of the session, edging McLaren’s Oscar Piastri by a comfortable 0.327s.

Behind the unexpected leading duo, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez lined up third and fourth. But behind the bulls, Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen formed a second unforeseen pair of front-runners in the 60-minute session.

Perhaps even more surprising were Ferrari and Mercedes’ performances, with neither team present in the top ten, although there were no issues to report for in either camp.

Teams and drivers embarked on a voyage of discovery at the outset of FP1, with F1 and its ground-effect cars racing in Shanghai for the first time since 2019, while it’s a Sprint weekend as well.

Additionally, the track has been resurfaced – or rather has undergone a bitumen treatment. So all in all, engineers are facing a heavy burden with only a 60-minute practice session on offer.

Haas ‘ contenders led a gaggle of cars that headed out on track when the light went green at the end of the pitlane, with China’s local hero Zhou Guany following suit.

As the track gradually populated, Red Bull’s duo immediately went top with Verstappen leading the charge, with both drivers setting their early flyers on the medium compound.

Fifteen minutes into the session, proceedings were disrupted by what appeared to be a patch of grass that was on fire on the inside of Turn 7, a bizarre incident that triggered the red flag.

The interruption shaved five minutes off the running time. As everyone got back on track, George Russell remained consigned to the Mercedes garage while Lewis Hamilton was running normally but two seconds off the pace.

The halfway point of the session brought a change at the top with a soft-shod pair of Ferraris moving ahead with Leclerc edging Sainz by 0.252s as the Monegasque lowered the benchmark to 1m38.090s.

Shortly after, as the Ferrari/Red Bull combo led the way, Mercedes finally upped the pace with Russell – running on the hards – slotting in sixth just behind Norris while Hamilton was two positions behind.

But Esteban Ocon’s Alpine – equipped with an upgraded floor this weekend – became an unexpected visitor to the top five. As a reminder, Ocon is the only driver benefiting from the update with Pierre Gasly receiving the new component in Miami.

The widespread use in the session of the medium and hard tyre indicated that the soft rubber is unlikely to be the tyre of choice for Saturday’s Sprint.

With fifteen minutes left on the clock, Williams’ Logan Sargeant kicked off the qualifying simulations, which saw the American jump up to P2. But Alex Albon followed up his teammate’s effort with a 1.37.229s that put him 0.861s clear of Leclerc.

Rotations at the top were fast and furious, with Perez seizing the lead only for the Mexican to be blitz the field by 0.498s with a 1m36.660s.

With just 5 minutes to go, valiant efforts by Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg positioned the Haas duo among the top five.

But up ahead, McLaren’s Oscar Piastri hammered in a 1m36.629s that placed him at the top of the pack – not too shabby for a team that repeatedly played down its prospects in Chine, but it’s early days still.

However, out of the blue with just a minute to go, Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll jumped to the top, setting the final time of the session at 1m36.302s, a performance that suggested that there was perhaps still all to, play for in the this afternoon’s Spring qualifying.

Behind Stroll and Piastri, and Verstappen and Perez, Hulkenberg and Magnussen stuck together to round off the top six while Ocon, Albon, Ricciardo – putting his new RB chassis to good use – and Bottas completing the top ten.

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