Max Verstappen leads Abu Dhabi practice; Lewis Hamilton fifth in return session

Abu Dhabi practice
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YAS ISLAND, Abu Dhabi — Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday in the first practice for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The Red Bull driver was 0.34 seconds ahead of Mercedes rival Valtteri Bottas and 1.14 seconds quicker than Renault driver Esteban Ocon.

Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton returned for Mercedes after a bout with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and had the fifth fastest time. He struggled early in the session with a brake sensor issue that needed to be repaired in the team garage.

The Mercedes team announced Thursday that Hamilton had recovered from COVID-19, which returned to George Russell (who led 57 laps and nearly won last Sunday in place of Hamilton at Bahrain) with Williams in Sunday’s race.

Hamilton, who just clinched his seventh world championship, tested positive for COVID-19 the day after winning the Bahrain GP on Nov. 29 and missed last weekend’s Sakhir GP in Bahrain as he self-isolated for 10 days.

“Lewis tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday prior to completion of his self-isolation period in Bahrain. This enabled him to travel to Abu Dhabi on Thursday afternoon, and he tested negative on arrival,” Mercedes said in a statement. “Lewis has therefore completed the protocols required by the FIA for his entry to the paddock and will be able to take part in the race weekend.”

Governing body FIA confirmed that Hamilton was free to leave Bahrain according to the health authority regulations in place.

There are two practice sessions in Abu Dhabi on Friday. A second practice will be held later Friday at the Yas Marina circuit.

Hamilton has won the Abu Dhabi GP a record five times, including the past two years.

Sunday will also feature Sebastian Vettel’s last race with Ferrari after joining the Italian team in 2015. The four-time F1 champion, who has struggled most of the season, is racing for Aston Martin next year.

Bahrain winner Sergio Perez (McLaren) and Kevin Magnussen (Haas F1 Team) also will be making the last starts with their teams. Both will start from the rear Sunday because of penalties for using new equipment.

Santino Ferrucci will drive No. 14 for AJ Foyt Racing full time in 2023 IndyCar season

Santino Ferrucci AJ Foyt
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Santino Ferrucci will return to full-time racing in the NTT IndyCar Series next season, joining AJ Foyt Racing.

Ferrucci had made eight IndyCar starts with three teams since his last full-time season in 2020 while also racing part time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year.

He will drive the storied No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet for four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt’s team, which will field the car from its Waller, Texas headquarters.

“It’s incredibly exciting to be back in the INDYCAR Series full time,” Ferrucci said in a team release. “Being a part-time driver over the last two years has been hard for me, personally. I’m a race car driver, and I want to compete. Working with different teams has been exciting, and I’m proud that no matter which car I’ve raced, I’ve always shown speed and consistency. I couldn’t be more excited to join AJ Foyt Racing in the 14 Chevy. I can’t wait to make the best of it.”

Ferrucci, 24, had finished a career-best fourth in IndyCar four times, including the 104th Indy 500 in 2020. He was the 2019 Indy 500 rookie of the year with a sixth.

In nine Xfinity starts since 2021, Ferrucci has a career-best finish of 13th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I am thrilled to welcome Santino to the team,” Larry Foyt said in a release. “He’s shown a knack for getting toward the front of the field, and I think he is a racer who moves forward on race day. A.J. sees the fire in him and has enjoyed their meetings together. I think Santino’s experience will help his rookie teammate as well, so he is a great addition to our roster.”

Ferrucci will be teamed at AJ Foyt Racing with Benjamin Pedersen, who finished fifth in the 2022 Indy Lights standings. The team has yet to specify the number for Pedersen’s entry, which will be fielded out of its Indianapolis race shop.

Foyt’s two full-time drivers last season were Dalton Kellett and Kyle Kirkwood, who is moving to Andretti Autosport.