Lewis Hamilton fastest in second practice for Austrian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton put his Mercedes on top in practice for the Austrian Grand Prix before he was afforded a glimpse of the hostile reception that awaits him when he steps into the lion’s den on Sunday.

Hamilton edged out his team-mate Valtteri Bottas by 0.189 seconds at Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring with his championship rival Max Verstappen third and two tenths adrift.

But moments after he posted his fastest time, Hamilton made a mistake.

In the light drizzle, against the backdrop of the Styrian mountains, the seven-time world champion carried too much speed through the right-handed Turn 4 and headed straight for the gravel.

A ripple of cheers rang around the 2.68-mile arena as the Mercedes driver gingerly made his way through the sand before returning to the sanctuary of his garage.

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The next chapter of Hamilton versus Verstappen will be played out in front of a packed house at the Red Bull Ring for Formula One’s biggest crowd of the Covid-19 era.

More than 60,000 spectators are expected, and at least half of those will be there to support Verstappen with the Dutchman’s so-called Orange Army making the 600-mile pilgrimage from Holland to Spielberg.

Following Verstappen’s domination of last Sunday’s race at the same venue, his travelling followers might have expected to see their man waltz to his fourth win in five.

Early on, Verstappen, who holds an 18-point lead over Hamilton, sent alarm bells ringing when he finished fastest in the opening running.

The 23-year-old was almost three tenths quicker than anyone else, while Hamilton was only seventh, half-a-second back.

But following a two-and-a-half-hour break in action, Hamilton and his Mercedes team emerged an outfit reinvigorated to lead the way, and provide a timely boost to their star driver, who last won at the Spanish Grand Prix on May 9.

The conditions on Friday – some 10 degrees cooler than last week – appeared to suit Mercedes who can be found wanting in more extreme temperatures. Alterations to their chassis, engine tuning and setup have also provided early positive signs.

“I am generally happy with where the car is and I am not going to change too much,” said Hamilton, whose run of four races without a win in a single campaign is his worse since 2016.

“If it ’aint broke don’t fix it. Sometimes we try to eke out more and it gets worse so if I make any changes overnight they will be the tiniest of tweaks.

“But Red Bull have got some extra in their bag, I know that. They have still got two tenths or maybe a tenth-and-a-half advantage over us. We have taken steps but not enough to close the gap.”

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff added: “I am cautiously optimistic. I expect more engine speed from Red Bull tomorrow but we have improved in some of the corner sequences so that is encouraging.”

Light rain impacted the second half of Friday’s concluding action and it could yet play its part in Sunday’s race, too.

Behind the top three, Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel finished fourth and fifth respectively for Aston Martin with rookie Yuki Tsunoda sixth in his AlphaTauri.

British driver Lando Norris finished ninth and spun in the closing stages. The McLaren driver got on the throttle too early on the exit of Turn 1, sending him on to the grass on the opposite side of the circuit.

“What damage do you have?” Norris’ race engineer, Will Joseph asked.

“Talent,” came the derisive reply from a driver who is fifth in the standings after scoring at every round so far.

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