Rookie watch: Bianchi still setting the pace

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The majority of the 2013 rookies have failed to set Formula One alight so far, but Marussia’s Jules Bianchi has certainly turned a few heads in the paddock despite failing to score. However, the other four drivers all have their own stories as Formula One prepares to return to Europe in two weeks’ time.

Valtteri Bottas – Williams

Bottas has made a quiet start to his F1 career; a far cry from the revolution many expected him to herald. The FW35 has certainly blighted Williams’ form, but the fact that Bottas has outraced teammate Pastor Maldonado in three of the four races so far this season suggests there is more to come from the young Finn.

Esteban Gutierrez – Sauber

For Gutierrez, his F1 baptism has been a difficult one. Although he has had some tough luck, the Mexican driver has really failed to impress. Finishing behind Charles Pic in Bahrain proves that he needs to improve in order to be taken seriously as a star for the future.

Giedo van der Garde – Caterham

van der Garde’s F1 debut came after many years of testing and hype which appears to have fizzled out in just four races. He has been the last classified finisher in three of the four races so far, and his season looks set to be a battle at the back with Max Chilton.

Jules Bianchi – Marussia

The star rookie of 2013 so far, Bianchi has shown good pace in a car which is barely capable of matching Caterham. Bahrain was a difficult weekend for the young Frenchman, and he could not continue his string of victories over Charles Pic, yet he will be keen on impressing at the Spanish GP next week. Currently the top rookie driver in 2013.

Max Chilton – Marussia

Chilton’s start has been quiet and largely overshadowed by the success of his teammate, causing many to compare the two. It is a question of whether Bianchi is outperforming the car, or if Chilton is underperforming. He will take solace in his victories over van der Garde though, and Chilton will be hoping to build upon his 16th place finishe in Malaysia in the coming races.

Mercedes power: Hamilton, Bottas fastest during 1st French GP practice

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LE CASTELLET, France (AP) — Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas posted the top two times during the opening practice for Formula One’s French Grand Prix on Friday.

Defending champion Hamilton clocked the best lap time at 0.140 seconds faster than Bottas.

Red Bulls’ Daniel Ricciardo had the third best effort, followed by Ferrari pair Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel leads Hamilton by one point atop the standings after seven of 21 races.

The session had one red flag near the end when Marcus Ericsson spun out of control and slammed into the barrier on Turn 11. The right rear of his Sauber burst into flame before the Swede got out. Sauber said he was unharmed.

Hamilton also had a scare when forced to swerve off course to avoid ramming a slow-going Stoffel Vandoorne and slalomed around two rows of bollards before returning to the flow. Hamilton said on his team radio the McLaren driver was going “dangerously slow” when he came upon him.

Later, Hamilton complained his Mercedes was having trouble turning. After coming back out, the four-time world champion quickly went to the top of the timesheet.

This was the first chance drivers had to run on the 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) Paul Ricard Circuit, as F1 makes its return to France for the first time in a decade.

The track resting in wooded hills just inland from the Cote d’Azur was basked in the Mediterranean sun and subject to moments of gusting winds.

Raikkonen, Brendon Hartley (Toro Rosso), Esteban Ocon (Force India) and Vandoorne all spun their cars onto the blue-striped run-off areas at Turn Six because of a tricky tailwind but managed to stop before hitting the barrier.

Charles Leclerc (Sauber) twice spun to a brief stop, while Max Verstappen drove wide on consecutive corners and had a near-miss with Sergio Perez of Force India.

Vettel took the lead in the standings two weeks ago in Montreal where he won the Canadian GP after starting from pole position. That victory erased a 14-point lead held by Hamilton after he could manage only a fifth-place finish.

There will be two more practices on Friday and on Saturday before qualifying for Sunday’s race.

The last time a F1 race was held here at Le Castellet was in 1990 when Alain Prost won for Ferrari.