Max Verstappen leads second practice at Spa; Daniel Ricciardo 2nd

F1 Spa practice
Clive Mason - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday in the second practice session for the F1 Belgian Grand Prix at the Spa circuit

Verstappen was 0.048 seconds ahead of Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo and 0.096 ahead of six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton. The Mercedes driver has won four of the first six races and leads the championship by 37 points over second-place Verstappen.

With about 20 minutes left, Ricciardo parked his Renault on the side after a loss of hydraulic pressure.

The session briefly was held up after debris fell onto the track at Turn 1, with race stewards rushing over to remove a couple of loose advertising hoardings.

Conditions were overcast all day with light rain falling in the afternoon on the 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) track nestled in the Ardennes forest.

It was another miserable day for struggling Ferrari, with Charles Leclerc 15th and four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel in 17th.

In the first practice, Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas led by 0.069 seconds over Hamilton.

Bottas had a late puncture to his left-front tire in that session because of debris (and not the tire degradation issues that caused a puncture near the end of the British GP on Aug. 2).

There will be a third and final practice Saturday ahead of qualifying in the afternoon.

The track was mostly empty as all F1 races have been held without fans this season because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Last year more than 250,000 fans – including swarms of orange-clad Dutch fans supporting Verstappen- crammed onto campsites with smells from impromptu barbecues and fast-food stalls filling the air.

But some fans might be coming back next month in Italy. Tuscany region president Enrico Rossi said Friday that local health authorities have approved 3,000 fans for the Tuscan Grand Prix on Sept. 13.

The circuit has three big stands that can hold 1,000 people each in accordance with national rules on public events.

Fans will have their temperature taken upon arrival and wear masks if it is approved at government level on Saturday.

There will be a smattering of spectators at the Italian GP in Monza a week earlier, too, with 250 health workers invited to attend in recognition of their efforts during the pandemic.

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
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Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”