By Alan Baldwin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Ferrari’s Formula One leader Charles Leclerc was fastest in practice for the Spanish Grand Prix on Friday with George Russell and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton second and third for Mercedes.
Ferrari introduced improvements to try to bridge the performance gap with rivals Red Bull, who have won the last two races with world champion Max Verstappen, and they seemed to be working well.
Leclerc clocked a best time of one minute 19.670 seconds on the faster soft tires in the late afternoon sun with Russell 0.117 slower, also on the soft compound, and Hamilton 0.204 behind.
Defending champions Mercedes, who struggled to tame a bouncy car in the first five races of the season, appeared to be making progress with their “porpoising” problem.
“The car definitely reacts differently and we have different limits this time,” Russell said.
“We certainly don’t have the porpoising on the straight but we do feel a bit here and there on the corners,” added the Briton.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said Mercedes seemed to have their issues under control.
“They had a good day today, it seems, so we have a few things to put away,” he told Sky Sports television.
Leclerc clocked 1:19.828 in the first session, with Spanish teammate Carlos Sainz 0.079 slower and Verstappen third. Sainz finished fourth in the second session with the Dutch driver fifth.
Leclerc is 19 points ahead of Verstappen while Ferrari has seen its lead reduced to six in the constructors’ standings.
“It’s been tight since the start of the season and every time they (Red Bull) have made improvements they’ve been closer and closer and now I think they’re a bit ahead, especially in terms of race pace,” Leclerc told reporters earlier.
“Hopefully that (the upgrades) will be enough for us to get back to the top.”
Verstappen has won three races this season and Leclerc the other two.
Russell was fourth in the first session and Hamilton sixth.
Two-time Alpine world champion Fernando Alonso finished fifth and sixth in the sessions respectively.
Formula E champion and Mercedes reserve Nyck de Vries made his Grand Prix weekend debut in place of Thai driver Alex Albon at Williams for the opening session and finished 18th but quicker than Canadian regular Nicholas Latifi.
Estonian Juri Vips replaced Sergio Perez in the Red Bull, and was last while experienced Polish reserve Robert Kubica took the wheel of Guanyu Zhou’s Alfa Romeo and set the 13th fastest lap.
Valtteri Bottas stopped his Alfa Romeo on track at the start of the second session and McLaren’s Lando Norris damaged the floor of his car after just six laps and sat out the rest of the afternoon.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis, Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)