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.
Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1
Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.
If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”
The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.
Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.
But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.
“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.
“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”
Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.
If #F1 wants to start looking around for an American driver, Colton Herta has a suggestion for where that search should start. https://t.co/71PVeu6aBj
Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.
A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.
“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.
“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”
During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:
–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;
–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;
–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”
–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.
“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”