By Steve Keating
MONTREAL (Reuters) – Charles Leclerc posted the fastest time in practice for the Canadian Grand Prix on Friday as Ferrari took advantage of some Mercedes misfortune with world champion Lewis Hamilton watching from the pits after clipping the wall.
Leclerc lapped the island circuit in the day’s best time of one minute 12.177 seconds, 0.074 ahead of his team mate, four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel.
That provided Ferrari with a much-needed boost as they look to revive their challenge to Mercedes in Canada.
Mercedes have dominated this season so far with Hamilton and team mate Valtteri Bottas winning all six races, crossing one-two in five of them.
Hamilton is 17 points clear of Bottas at the top of the standings with a fading Vettel 55 adrift of the Briton.
“I still believe Mercedes is very strong and I expect them to be very hard to beat in qualifying tomorrow,” said Leclerc.
“We did a good performance from free practice one to free practice two; the car felt better but we shall do another step to try to challenge Mercedes tomorrow.
“It has been a positive day.”
With Hamilton, fastest in the morning session, on the sidelines, his Finnish team mate Bottas was third quickest for Mercedes in the afternoon, followed by McLaren’s Spaniard Carlos Sainz and Dane Kevin Magnussen for Haas.
It was a wild, dusty day on the island circuit with several cars brushing the walls, including Hamilton’s, bringing a premature end to the five-times world champion’s day.
After dominating the opening practice, Mercedes, using an upgraded engine, were flexing their muscles again in the second until a rare mistake by Hamilton sent him into the wall and then the pits.
With an hour left in the session the Briton, pushing too hard coming through a chicane, clipped the barrier, puncturing the right rear tire.
After limping back to the garage, Hamilton offered a sheepish apology to his team telling them: “Sorry about that.”
Having sustained damage to the floor of his car, he did not reappear on the track.
“I don’t remember the last time I missed a whole session before,” said Hamilton. “It’s definitely not great to watch the session from the garage; it feels like sitting in the headmaster’s office, wishing to be back in class.
“It was an innocent mistake, I was doing multiple laps on the medium tire and was really trying to find the limit.
“Obviously I went slightly over.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who complained to his team during the morning session that the track was “insanely dirty”, introduced himself to the infamous “Wall of Champions” in the second, slapping the barrier with his left front tire.
The Dutchman returned to the pits and finished the session down in 13th, after setting the fourth-best time in the morning.
Any hopes of rival teams that Mercedes would experience a few hiccups transitioning to an upgraded power unit were quickly dispelled with Hamilton topping the timing charts in each session and settling there until his run in with the wall.
The Briton has won six times in Canada, including his maiden F1 victory in 2007 and if he can finish first on Sunday will equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven victories.
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)