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Azerbaijan GP: Max Verstappen fastest in chaotic Baku practice session ahead of Friday Qualifying

Max Verstappen tops Charles Leclerc in competitive practice at Baku City Circuit; a fire on Pierre Gasly's Alpine saw the chaotic session red flagged; watch Azerbaijan GP Qualifying live on Sky Sports F1 at 2pm on Friday, with build-up from 1pm

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A red flag was brought out during first practice as Pierre Gasly's Alpine caught on fire, while Haas driver Kevin Magnussen got stuck at the first corner around the Baku City Circuit

Max Verstappen edged out Charles Leclerc to top a crucial and chaotic practice session at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix ahead of qualifying in Baku later on Friday.

With the Baku City Circuit hosting the first of Formula 1's six Sprint weekends this season - and the first in a new format for 2023, Verstappen's 1:42.315 snatched first from Ferrari's Leclerc by just 0.037s, with the Dutchman's Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez a further tenth back in third.

Friday's opening 60-minute session, the only practice of the weekend under the new format, took on additional significance as teams and drivers attempted to prepare for Friday afternoon's qualifying, Saturday's Sprint qualifying and race, and Sunday's Grand Prix.

The challenge facing the teams was heightened as 13 minutes of the session were lost following a red flag caused by Pierre Gasly's Alpine catching fire after a loss of hydraulic pressure.

World championship leader Verstappen, who is chasing a third successive drivers' title and tops the 2023 standings after winning two of the first three races, looked to have been outpaced by both Leclerc on Perez before reclaiming the fastest time in the dying seconds of the session.

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Carlos Sainz left a significant dent in the barriers as his Ferrari fortunately avoided damage during opening practice in Azerbaijan

While Perez's competitiveness with his team-mate was unsurprising given his prowess at street circuits, Leclerc splitting the Red Bulls after Ferrari's hugely disappointing start to the season comes as a major boost to the Italian squad, who will be desperate to maintain their improvement when the competitive action begins.

While Alpine, who withdrew Gasly's team-mate Esteban Ocon from the remaining 32 minutes of the session as a precaution after the incident, were undoubtedly the major losers, several other drivers and teams faced issues.

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Ferrari's Carlos Sainz, who finished fourth, got away with an early brush of the wall at Turn 5, while AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda was less fortunate as he suffered a puncture after clipping the barrier at Turn 3.

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Yuki Tsunoda had to take his car back to the pitlane after he hit the wall, causing a puncture to his AlphaTauri

Mercedes were hampered by early brake issues and opted not to do any soft-tyre running as Lewis Hamilton finished 11th with team-mate George Russell in 17th.

Consequently, the Silver Arrows' true pace remains a mystery going into qualifying, but Hamilton will hope his apparent advantage over Russell will enable him to outqualify his team-mate for the first time this season.

Amid the drama of Gasly's fire, which the marshals struggled to gain control of, Haas' Kevin Magnussen was forced to stop out on track following a loss of fuel pressure.

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Aston Martin's Lance Stroll was angry with Zhou Guanyu for getting in his way during P1

Fernando Alonso, who has finished on the podium for Aston Martin at all three races so far this season, was impacted by an issue with his DRS, and finished eighth as he also opted not to run on soft tyres.

In contrast to Alpine, who were unable to take advantage of the significant upgrades brought to their car after a four-week gap following the Australian Grand Prix, McLaren enjoyed an impressive session after also fitting a new floor.

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Sky F1's Ted Kravitz explains what upgrades have been brought to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix by McLaren and Alpine

Lando Norris was fifth, while rookie team-mate Oscar Piastri, who took on the responsibility of trialling the new parts for much of the session, was 12th.

There was also an impressive result for fellow rookie Nyck de Vries, who was sixth for AlphaTauri, ahead of the other Aston Martin of Lance Stroll.

Azerbaijan GP Free Practice Timesheet

Driver Team Time
1) Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:42.315
2) Charles Leclerc Ferrari +0.037
3) Sergio Perez Red Bull +0.139
4) Carlos Sainz Ferrari +0.584
5) Lando Norris McLaren +0.810
6) Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri +1.099
7) Lance Stroll Aston Martin +1.140
8) Fernando Alonso Aston Martin +1.245
9) Alex Albon Williams +1.313
10) Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo +1.433
11) Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +1.483
12) Oscar Piastri McLaren +1.665
13) Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo +1.695
14) Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri +1.822
15) Nico Hulkenberg Haas +2.008
16) Logan Sargeant Williams +2.585
17) George Russell Mercedes +2.767
18) Esteban Ocon Alpine +3.640
19) Pierre Gasly Alpine +4.006
20) Kevin Magnussen Haas +5.183

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