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Leclerc outpaces world champion Verstappen to go fastest in Melbourne

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc went quickest in second practice at the Australian Grand Prix on Friday ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, with a struggling Lewis Hamilton only managing 13th.

Monaco’s Leclerc, the early season championship leader, was outpaced by Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz in the first 60-minute run at a revamped Albert Park, but took the honours in the second session.

Leclerc clocked a best of 1min 18.978 secs, with reigning world champion Verstappen 0.245secs behind after a late surge. Sainz went third-fastest.

Verstappen, who won in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, struggled with handling early on, saying on the team radio: “I’m still having the same issues mate, I can’t turn the car” after straightlining into the Turn 10 chicane. 

He headed back to the pits after five laps, but bounced back to ensure Ferrari and Red Bull were again dominant.

Veteran Fernando Alonso, who won at Albert Park 16 years ago, was a surprise fourth after a blistering 1:19.537 in his Alpine, ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.

Esteban Ocon in the other Alpine secured sixth with 2019 winner Valtteri Bottas seventh for Alfa Romeo.

But seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton continued to struggle, as he did at the opening two races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

His Mercedes has had problems with porpoising—bouncing at high speed—this season after a radical design overhaul and there are no new upgrades for Melbourne.

Both he and teammate George Russell hit trouble. Russell, who finished 11th, slid through Turn 2 and Hamilton bounced onto gravel at Turn 14.

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel’s return to action after missing Bahrain and Saudi Arabia with Covid also went badly wrong.

After setting some respectable times, the German jumped out of his Aston Martin with 14 minutes of the first practice left as smoke billowed from the back.

“Forget it, it’s gone,” he said on the radio as the red flags came out and he grabbed a fire extinguisher to deal with the problem.

Once the cars had returned to the pit lane, he was seen driving around the track on a moped to return to the paddock, waving to fans, and was set to visit the stewards later to explain himself.

He failed to appear for the second practice with his team tweeting that his “car will not be ready to run” in a huge setback for the three-time Melbourne champion.

It was another miserable day for the Aston Martin team — who are yet to score a point — with the red flags brought out with 10 minutes left after some bodywork flew off Lance Stroll’s car. He finished 14th.

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