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Leclerc sets Baku pace and hopes Ferrari problems are in the past

BAKU (AFP) – Charles Leclerc planted his Ferrari clear of in-form Sergio Perez at the top of the times in practice late on Friday for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix tonight (7pm Brunei time) and hoped his team have ironed out the problems that surfaced in Monaco.

A bungled strategy contributed in Leclerc getting shortchanged with only fourth place from pole in Monaco behind Red Bull’s Perez last time out.

As a result the winner on the streets of Baku 12 months ago arrived back in town being talked about as a viable title contender ahead of this eighth round of the season.

Mexico’s most successful Formula One driver is only 15 points behind his world champion teammate Max Verstappen and six shy of Leclerc.

Perez was quick out of the blocks dominating first practice but he ended the day 0.248sec behind Leclerc who was favourite to nail his sixth pole out of eight in the second practice yesterday.

Charles Leclerc during the first free practice. PHOTO: AP

Verstappen, who has yet to make a podium in Baku, posted the third quickest time, a further 0.108sec adrift, with Fernando Alonso placed fourth, the two-time world champion clearly meaning business in his Alpine.

Leclerc was initially livid at missing out on converting the prime bit of real estate he occupied at the head of the grid in his home Monaco grand Prix into a third win of the season, his team bungling their strategy enough to allow Perez to take the chequered flag.

“There was plenty to analyse after Monaco as we made some mistakes,” he said before practice began.

“What gives me confidence for the future is that we found the reasons for those errors. This is good news for the future.”

Carlos Sainz, runner-up to Perez in Monaco, took fifth in the second Ferrari with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly completing the top six.

On the 15th year anniversary to the day of the first of his 103 grand prix wins Lewis Hamilton can hardly have been best pleased to find out over the team radio at one stage he was lapping 2.3 seconds slower than Leclerc in his struggling Mercedes.

Hamilton’s attempt to reclaim the world title has been shackled by his sluggish car, with optimism of the upgrades Mercedes had introduced in Barcelona last month dampened by this showing.

On this evidence Hamilton had every right to look incredulous when told at the morning’s press conference there was a feeling Mercedes will be more competitive this weekend.

“Where’s that feeling coming from?” asked a bemused Hamilton.

He was to eventually came in 12th with George Russell in the other Mercedes in seventh. The weekend’s action on the Caspian Sea had also been preceded by Perez telling the press that the new contract he signed with Red Bull at Monaco had left his mind free to concentrate on his emerging challenge for the world title.

“As a driver you want certainty, you want to get that stress out of the way, so the earlier the better,” said the driver known in the pits and amongst his fans as ‘Checo’.

“It takes so much energy and so much focus to be a hundred percent weekend by weekend, so you don’t need that thinking.

“So, it was good that we agreed so early on that contract. I feel like I’ve got a good opportunity (in the 2022 title race) but obviously the season is still very young so anything can happen from now.”

Perez had to let Verstappen pass to take the win in Barcelona last month under team orders, but pointedly said that nowhere in his new deal did it stipulate that “I have to finish second”.

Second is a position Daniel Ricciardo would gladly settle for as his difficulties at McLaren continued.

The Australian’s frankness and good nature and race skill have made him a hugely popular figure on the grid but his trademark smile is being tested by being constantly outshone by teammate Lando Norris.