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Stroll quickest in China GP practice after small track-side fire

Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll was quickest in first and only practice for the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday, ahead of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri, with championship leader Max Verstappen third.

Canadian Stroll took advantage of a rapidly quickening track at the end of the 60-minute session and some upgrades to his car to record a blistering lap of 1min 36.302sec, beating Piastri by 0.327sec, with the Red Bull of Verstappen 0.031sec further back.

The second Red Bull of Sergio Perez was fourth in Shanghai followed by the much-improved Haas pair, Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, who benefited from significant upgrades to their cars.

A big surprise was Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, who could only finish 13th and 14th respectively in their Ferraris, almost two seconds off the pace.

Formula One is back in China for the first time in five years with a packed programme including a Saturday sprint race and the sport’s first Chinese driver on the grid in Zhou Guanyu.

It meant the morning’s practice session was the only preparation time ahead of sprint qualifying on Friday afternoon.

But five minutes were lost to an early red flag when grass at the side of the track caught fire and had to be extinguished by marshals.

Local hero Zhou was a five-year-old spectator at the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix in 2004 and huge cheers erupted as he emerged from the pit lane in his bright green Sauber for his home debut.

Zhou thrilled the crowd with a competitive lap to place 11th, ahead of both Ferraris and the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.

Hamilton won the last race in Shanghai in 2019, one of his record six victories at the circuit, but he limped around on hard tyres to 18th place, just behind Russell and two and a half seconds off the time of Stroll.

Verstappen has not yet won in Shanghai, but arrived having won 50 percent of all races since the last Chinese race in 2019.

Most of the action came in the last few minutes of the session as the track, not raced on for half a decade, rubbered in.

Alex Albon’s Williams surprisingly set the pace with 1min 37.158sec on a qualifying simulation run with five minutes to go, before being relegated to eighth.

The sprint weekend has a new format this season.

Sprint qualifying that used to take place on Saturday morning is now the second session on Friday.

The sprint race will be the first action on Saturday followed by normal qualifying for Sunday’s grand prix.

The changes mean teams will be able to adjust their car set-ups after the sprint race for GP qualifying, which wasn’t allowed previously.

“I do think that the new sprint format is better, it gives you also more opportunity to work on the car,” said Verstappen. “It seems all a bit more logical.”

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