Stroll leads Chinese GP practice

Lance Stroll topped an unusual solitary practice session at the Chinese Grand Prix ahead of sprint qualifying later today.

Formula 1 hasn’t visited China’s Shanghai International Circuit in five years, in which time little racing has taken place at the 20-year-old circuit.

In recent years race organizers had sprayed the bitumen on the circuit surface in an attempt to seal the aging roads in lieu of resurfacing works. There was considerable debate about the effect the bitumen treatment would have on grip levels through the weekend, and the answer appeared to be rapid track evolution after only one hour of Formula 1 running.

Stroll was the chief beneficiary, setting his fastest time on new soft tires in the final minutes to set the benchmark at 1m36.302s. The time was 2.391s slower than the best FP1 time from the sport’s previous visit in 2019 and 4.755s slower than the previous pole time.

The times suggest there is significant evolution still to come, which could lead to a frenetic sprint qualifying session.

Oscar Piastri was second, the McLaren driver 0.327s slower after setting his lap a few minutes earlier than the leading Canadian. His teammate, Lando Norris, looked set for top spot after going 0.45s up on Piastri in the first two sectors, but the Briton abandoned the attempt to return to pit lane, leaving him an unrepresentative 16th.

The scale of the track evolution was highlighted by Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez finishing third and fourth, 0.358s and 0.388s off the pace respectively. Both drivers spent most of the session on medium tires before switching to softs in the final 10 minutes. Among the first to set qualifying times, their laps didn’t stand by the end of the hour.

Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen were more than 0.4s further back in fifth and sixth for Haas ahead of a punchy Esteban Ocon, who took Alpine’s only upgrade package to seventh and 0.911s off the pace.

Alex Albon and Daniel Ricciardo, both with new gearboxes, were closely matched in eighth and ninth ahead of Sauber teammates Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu and RB’s Yuki Tsunoda.

Ferrari ran an unusual single-tire strategy for the session, with Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz using just one set of softs each for the entire hour. On top early in practice, they sank to 13th and 14th, 1.788s and 1.982s off the pace respectively.

Logan Sargeant had a scrappy flying lap to 15th ahead of Norris and Mercedes teammates George Russell and Lewis Hamilton. Like Ferrari, the Mercedes drivers used a single set of tires each, in their case one set of hards apiece. Russell, with a new power unit this weekend, led Hamilton by just 0.033s.

Hamilton’s hour was more notable for having raised the ire of race control in a skirmish with Hulkenberg and Piastri. Attempting to find some clear air for a flying lap, Hamilton forced Hulkenberg off track at the penultimate corner and attempted to go around the outside of Piastri at the final turn. The Australian balked him. sending the Mercedes driver over the pit entry line and into pit lane, for which he was shown the black and white flag.

Fernando Alonso — both he and teammate Stroll had new gearboxes for the session — was 19th ahead of a deeply dispirited Pierre Gasly.

Gasly, who finished last, lamented over team radio he had learned nothing from the session, having been given a single set of softs for the hour and not having had access to the team’s latest upgrades, which were fast-tracked to Ocon’s car a week ahead of schedule.

The busy session was largely problem free with the bizarre exception of a grass fire on the inside at Turn 7. Red flags were called for marshals to extinguish the spontaneous combustion, thankfully costing the teams around only five minutes of their sole 60 minutes of free practice.

Story originally appeared on Racer