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Leclerc tops Saudi Arabian GP practice after drivers agree to race

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc outpaced world champion Max Verstappen with a late flying lap in Saturday’s final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice after drivers agreed to carry on despite an attack on a nearby oil facility.

None of the drivers appeared to be the worse for wear despite lengthy debates overnight about racing in the aftermath of Friday’s missile strike by Yemen’s Huthi rebels om the Aramco fuel plant, which ignited a blaze with black smoke billowing across the Formula One track.

Leclerc, winner of last weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, clocked a best lap of one minute and 29.735 seconds to beat the Dutchman by 0.033 seconds.

Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez was third, just 0.098 behind, ahead of Carlos Sainz in the second Ferrari and Valtteri Bottas, who was sixth for Alfa Romeo.

Defending champion Verstappen dominated most of the session, but made two errors on his final laps, once clipping a wall before bouncing heavily over a kerb, as he succumbed to over-aggression on the high-speed street track. 

In a generally calm session, Esteban Ocon was sixth for Alpine ahead of Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Fernando Alonso in the second Alpine and Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri.

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton struggled again in his Mercedes and wound up 11th with team-mate George Russell 14th as they battled the ‘bouncing’ again.

On another warm day at the Jeddah Street Circuit, following a short night after four-hour talks between drivers, teams and organisers, Bottas was the first man on track for final free practice.

The Finn, now with Alfa Romeo after leaving Mercedes, has exuded a new-found enthusiasm this season and was soon lapping quickly, but not rapidly enough to outpace the Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz.

Team principals, race organisers, Formula One and the ruling body, the FIA, had said they had reached a unanimous agreement for the show to go on, in less than an hour, but it took much longer to convince the drivers.

After around three and a half hours of further talks, they agreed to race. In a statement on their behalf, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) said “natural human concerns” had caused many to have doubts about taking part.

This was confirmed on Saturday morning by Ferrari team chief Mattia Binotto who admitted “I don’t think we can say that they are 100 per cent happy and fully relaxed.

“I think they are still concerned, but they are listening to the assurances that we give them, the understanding of the importance to stay here and somehow try to race because it’s the best choice we can do.

“After that long discussion, (which) it was important to have, they  simply understood and supported that it was important to stay and remain and continue the weekend and drive here in Saudi.

‘Safe and under control’

“By leaving the country, it would not have been simply the right choice and there were no right reasons to leave here, to leave the country after all the assurances we had got.

“I think they met. They had their own concerns and raised them, but all together we tried to get the assurances and got the right explanation as well.”

Aston Martin team boss Mike Krack added that the Saudi authorities and security had helped convince drivers “that everything would be safe and under control”.

In a joint statement, F1 and the FIA confirmed they had received “detailed assurances that the event is secure.”

Binotto added: “It was a long night, but first, let’s focus on the facts. It is never great to see what has happened, but we know that it is not the first time it has happened in this country or in this area.

“If there is any reason why we are here it is to get [across] a positive message and that is our duty. It is our task and by being here it is what we need to really try to do.”

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