Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz of Spain steers his car during the first practice session ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix at the Spa-Francorchamps racetrack in Spa, Belgium, Friday, July 28, 2023. The Belgian Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. Photo: AP
The Spanish driver clocked a best lap time of two minutes and 3.207 seconds to finish ahead of the McLarens of Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris with Charles Leclerc fourth for Ferrari.
Sergio Perez was fifth for Red Bull, but Max Verstappen did not clock a time and little of the action was representative in conditions that many observers believe render the circuit as too dangerous for racing.
In such treacherous conditions, the International Motoring Federation (FIA) may face calls for qualifying on Friday afternoon to be cancelled.
The Grand Prix, being run at Spa in July for the first time, follows much debate about safety and comes only weeks after the death of 18-year-old Dutch racer Dilano van't Hoff, a crash in wet conditions that was a reminder of the fatal accident in 2019 that claimed the life of French F2 driver Anthoine Hubert.
The session began in steady rain with Alex Albon, on intermediates, leading the way in his Williams before Mercedes sent Lewis Hamilton out on full wets as the rain intensified.
Red Bull had been reluctant to join the fray, in difficult conditions, having confirmed shortly beforehand that Verstappen was taking a new gearbox, his fifth of the year, and was therefore poised for a five-place grid penalty.
The maximum is four new boxes per year and Spa was a logical choice for the change and penalty because it is a long circuit offering many overtaking opportunities. Last year, he started 14th, but stormed to victory.
The session represented Ferrari’s first since they announced that Diego Loverno had replaced Laurent Mekies as sporting director.
It was a tricky baptism, a ‘sprint race’ weekend with limited practice in treacherous conditions that reduced the session to a mix of survival and hope as a sequence of drivers experienced unscheduled excursions.
Yuki Tsunoda, Albon, Perez, soon after joining the action, and Gasly all had minor incidents before Zhou Guanyu and then Logan Sargeant went off at the end of the Kemmel Straight after half an hour.
The session was red-flagged as Sargeant reported: "I couldn’t turn. Something was broken."
The delay lasted nine minutes before the circuit was green-flagged – the worst preparation for the teams ahead of qualifying, scheduled to take place later on Friday afternoon.
Anticipating a debate on how to form the grid, if qualifying was to be cancelled due to the weather, the FIA issued a statement mid-session.
"We can confirm that the teams have been informed that Free Practice will not be used to set the grid for either the sprint or the grand prix this weekend," it said.
"This has been done to ensure that teams do not treat the first session of the weekend as a competitive session.
"While the situation regarding the weather is constantly evolving, the priority will be to run a qualifying session for the grand prix. Other sessions may be cancelled or rescheduled to facilitate this, and if it is impossible to run a qualifying then the grid will be set by championship order."
This weekend’s Grand Prix was preceded by much debate over the safety of the track in wet conditions at a circuit where F1’s shortest race was run in 2021, only three laps after starting from the pit lane behind a Safety Car.
With 12 minutes remaining, Perez and Verstappen ventured out on intermediates in heavy rain, followed by Alonso, but without clocking timed laps.
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