Charles Leclerc leads F1 practices for Spanish GP; Hamilton’s Mercedes improving on speed

Leclerc F1 Mercedes improving
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

MONTMELO, Spain — Formula One points leader Charles Leclerc of Ferrari topped both F1 practices at the Spanish Grand Prix on Friday while Mercedes appeared to be improving.

Leclerc topped the time charts in both hourlong sessions. George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were next in their Mercedes, which have struggled to keep up with Ferrari and Red Bull this season. They were within 0.2 seconds of Leclerc.

Carlos Sainz clocked the fourth-best time in his Ferrari, followed by defending champion Max Verstappen for Red Bull.

Leclerc leads Verstappen by 19 points after five races, but Verstappen has cut the deficit after back-to-back wins in Italy and Miami.

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Teams often roll out major upgrades at the Spanish GP with a handful of races already in the bag and this well-known circuit, where teams also test in winter, is perfect for gauging progress.

Ferrari is hoping that upgrades it has brought to Spain can help it match the race speed that Red Bull has enjoyed in the last two races, when Verstappen beat Leclerc.

“Hopefully (the upgrade) will be a good one and enough to be in front of Red Bull again,” Leclerc said.

Verstappen said his team won’t roll out any surprises but is planning to reduce the weight of the car.

“Our car is a bit fat so we need to slim it down,” Verstappen said before getting behind the wheel on Friday.

It appears that focusing on the car’s reliability is the top priority for Red Bull, after car failures kept Verstappen from finishing in Bahrain and Australia, where Leclerc won.

“(Ferrari) are coming with a few upgrades so it will be interesting to see what that gives them at the end of the day,” Verstappen said. “We just need to focus on our package. We want a clean weekend.”

Hamilton is not used to being an outside contender in Barcelona, where he was won six times and five years in a row. But he was encouraged by the car’s apparent improvements.

Hamilton said he was “super happy with the progress,” and that his engineers had stabilized his Mercedes.

“We are not the quickest yet, but we are on our way. It is the first time I have driven down the straight without bouncing,” Hamilton said. “I am really grateful for those upgrades, we just need to fine-tune them. We can get it in even better shape tomorrow so we can tackle the guys up ahead.”

The best result this season for Hamilton, a 103-time race winner, is third place at the season opener in Bahrain. He is sixth in the standings with 36 points. Leclerc leads with 104.

Russell surprisingly has outperformed the seven-time world champion in his first year with Mercedes, finishing higher than his new teammate in four of five races.

The opening practice featured the F1 weekend debuts of two drivers in testing roles. Juri Vips filled in for Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, while Nyck de Vries drove Alex Albon’s Williams. Veteran Robert Kubica also got a turn for Alfa Romeo in place of Zhou Guanyu.

It was mostly an incident-free day except for a car failure that left Valtteri Bottas out of action. He said “something’s broke” as his Alfa Romeo ground to a stop in the grass. The Finn was whisked back to the paddock on the back of a scooter.

Race officials expect more than 110,000 fans to turn out for each of the event’s three days after two years of racing without the public due to the pandemic. The face mask that Hamilton wore in the pre-practice news conference was one of the few seen at the track.

Spanish fans are eager to see Sainz and Fernando Alonso, the last Spaniard to win the Spanish GP back in 2013.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track is notorious for being tough on tires. And the hot temperatures forecast for this weekend should make tire management key. Leclerc confirmed that when he told his team by radio that “my tires are going to pieces” near the end of practice.

Qualifying is on Saturday following a third practice. The 66-lap race is Sunday.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”