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Hamilton on top in Barcelona practice after dramatic day at Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton led a finely balanced second practice for Mercedes on Friday ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull only fifth.

Sunday’s race is the first of a triple header as Formula One returns to Europe where three-time world champion Verstappen was generally expected to reassert his superiority after missing out on two of the past four races.

But on the evidence of Friday’s opening two practice sessions Verstappen, who leads the championship by 56 points, has a real fight on his hands in a refreshing turn of events for impartial F1 fans.

Hamilton’s lap of 1min 13.264seconds lifted him atop the timesheets on a sun-blessed day in Catalonia ahead of home hero Carlos Sainz, appearing at his last Spanish Grand Prix weekend as a Ferrari driver.

The British driver’s performance came just hours after Mercedes boss Toto Wolff confirmed police were investigating an email from “a lunatic” claiming his team were sabotaging the car of Hamilton who will drive for Ferrari next season.

A visibly angry Wolff spoke out in the strongest terms possible over the “upsetting” email which he denied had come from a member of Mercedes’ 1500 workforce and which has been sent to Formula One’s major players including the FIA.

“This was not from a member of the team, this email is upsetting, somebody talking about death,” he said.

“These lunatics, all those mad people out there – take a shrink.”

In hot sunshine, a welcome change after Thursday’s scirocco rain and dust showers from the Sahara, Hamilton was making an early statement of intent at a track where Mercedes celebrated a double podium last year.

In third came the McLaren of Lando Norris, followed by the surprisingly quick Alpine of Pierre Gasly.

Verstappen could only muster fifth ahead of Charles Leclerc in the other Ferrari, who earlier this week had acted as Olympic torch bearer on his very own streets of Monaco where he had claimed his maiden home Grand Prix last month.

After all the data-crunching from opening practice drivers emerged for the late afternoon session, with Verstappen straight away reporting his Red Bull’s “weird understeer”.

George Russell, who ended up eighth overall, was quick out of the blocks, the Mercedes pole sitter from Montreal last time posting an early best lap of 1min 14.089sec.

His friend Norris led the chasing pack one tenth of a second adrift ahead of Hamilton and Verstappen.

‘Something wrong’

After a quiet FP1, Leclerc was motoring, posting the third quickest time as Sainz, who has never made a podium on home tarmac, rose to the top – both Ferraris looking to bounce back from a double DNF in Montreal.

Hamilton, a record-equalling six-time winner at the circuit, was also going encouragingly and took command at the midway stage in the latest positive sign of a return to form by Mercedes.

Gasly, who earlier was wearing a French football shirt ahead of Friday evening’s France clash with the Netherlands at Euro 2024, climbed to fourth.

Norris had laid down an encouraging marker when topping the times in opening practice.

After a hard-to-read session as teams toyed with set ups and upgrades Norris had edged Verstappen in the three-time world champion’s Red Bull by 0.024seconds.

Oliver Bearman, taking over Nico Hulkenberg’s Haas for opening practice, had a steady time of it, assembling data and taking care of a car only lent to him as he takes another step towards a possible entry in F1 next season.

Gasly limped back to the pits, the Frenchman reporting “there’s something wrong with the car”.

Verstappen approaches the 10th round of the 24-race world championhip leading the drivers standings from Leclerc, with Norris hovering only eight points back in third.

After missing out in Monaco to Leclerc and Miami to Norris Verstappen reasserted control with a stylish win in difficult circumstances in Canada last time out and will be eager to confirm that domination on Sunday in a race where he gained his maiden F1 win back in 2016.

But much will depend on Saturday’s qualifying, with 24 of 33 grands prix at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit won from pole position.

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