Lewis Hamilton leads first practice for inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Hamilton practice Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton posted the fastest time Friday in the first practice for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The British veteran was 0.056 seconds ahead of championship leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull and 0.223 ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Verstappen led for the first forty minutes of the hour-long session on the 6.2-kilometer (3.8-mile) street circuit, which sits on a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) coastal resort area in Jeddah.

Hamilton initially struggled to adapt to the track while Verstappen twice improved his best time before Hamilton found some extra speed.

Hamilton led Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in the Friday evening session, which was ended about three minutes early because Charles LeClerc brought out the red flag with a high-speed crash in Turn 22.

Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points – with nine wins to seven – in a closely fought duel that will see a champion crowned next weekend in Abu Dhabi. Hamilton won the most recent race in Qatar.

Verstappen can mathematically win the championship in Saudi Arabia, but Hamilton also has the ability to leave the circuit tied with the Dutchman in the standings.

Hamilton said there are differences in this title fight from his previous battles, but the British driver said he’s never been more relaxed.

“It’s different in one sense because we’ve got two incredibly close teams,” Hamilton said. “It’s different because as a team we’re fighting for uncharted territory. No one has ever won eight titles, team or driver, so that’s quite fresh and new. And then on the other side, I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been because I’ve been around a long time. It’s not my first.”

Hamilton has shaved 11 points off Verstappen’s lead in the last two races.