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Leclerc on top in Spain practice as Mercedes show signs of life

World championship leader Charles Leclerc topped the times for Ferrari ahead of the two Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton in Friday’s second free practice ahead of this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix.

The 24-year-old Monegasque driver was quickest in one minute and 19.670 to outpace Russell by a tenth of a second and seven-time champion Hamilton by two-tenths as Mercedes, with an extensive upgrades package, rediscovered their pace.

Local star Carlos Sainz was fourth in the second Ferrari ahead of world champion Max Verstappen of Red Bull and another Spaniard two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Alpine.

Sergio Perez was seventh in the second Red Bull ahead of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in a heavily-revised and resurgent Aston Martin, Esteban Ocon in the second Alpine and Mick Schumacher of Haas.

For Mercedes, it was an encouraging day, but Russell was quick to temper their optimism with realism. 

“Don’t forget we were quickest in Miami on Friday and then we lost it all on Saturday,” he said.

Hamilton said he was “positive and super-happy.”

“Thanks to the factory and all the hard work. We’re not the quickest, but we are on our way and the bouncing is way better.”

If it was good for the defending champions, it was less so for Red Bull on a day that saw them frustrated by a ruling from the ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA), that cleared rivals Aston Martin of copying parts of their machine.

‘Flattery’

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” said Red Bull team chief Christian Horner. 

“But we would not be happy if there had been any transference of IP (Intellectual Property).”

Horner, whose Red Bull outfit has lost many staff members who have been tempted to move to Aston Martin in recent months, said his team were carrying out internal investigations, warning that they data theft was a criminal offence.

On a hot afternoon in Catalonia, Verstappen was quickest in the early running, narrowly ahead of Sainz, before Valtteri Bottas parked his stricken Alfa Romeo at Turn One. 

“Something’s broken,” he reported.

A Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was deployed briefly, to enable marshals to move the car behind the barriers before the action resumed without much further drama.

When teams switched to running soft tyres, it was Vettel who took over at the top, displacing the champion’s Red Bull, proving the success of his team’s upgrades package.

Verstappen responded in 1:20.006, outpacing Vettel by seven-tenths before Sainz delighted his home support in a big Friday crowd by going fastest to end the on-track version of the Aston Martin v Red Bull “copycat” squabble.

The FIA had earlier cleared Aston Martin of any wrong after it was claimed that their upgraded car was a copy of the pace-setting Red Bull, much to the chagrin of Horner and team advisor Helmut Marko.

“It must now be clarified how this unbelievable copy came about,” said Marko, speaking to Sky Sports Germany. He added that Red Bull had “evidence” that data had been downloaded.

Unperturbed by this, Leclerc then outpaced Sainz by three-tenths to go top in 1:19.670, a lap that kept him in control as others including Russell and Hamilton improved to go second and third respectively. 

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