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Heavy rain impacts first practice ahead of Belgian GP

Carlos Sainz Carlos Sainz - The Canadian Press

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) — Runaway F1 championship leader Max Verstappen had the fastest time in qualifying for the rain-hit Belgian Grand Prix on Friday, but Charles Leclerc will start the race from pole position because of Verstappen's five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.

Verstappen will begin Sunday's race in sixth place, but that will hardly bother the two-time reigning Formula One champion considering he won here last year from 14th on the grid.

“This year the car is better. I’m still targeting to win the race for sure," Verstappen said. “I know that I have to drop back on Sunday with the penalty I have, but it was the best I could do today.”

He also believes it was the right decision to change his gearbox in Belgium.

“I think it’s the best place to do it," said Verstappen, who has won 44 races in his career. "Sunday looks more and more dry.”

Verstappen finished qualifying a significant .82 seconds ahead of Leclerc and .88 ahead of Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez, who moved up from third to second on the grid.

Leclerc does not believe his car is fast enough to challenge for a victory.

“It’s great to start first, but to say we’re targeting the win would be a bit optimistic,” he said. “It will be hard to keep these guys (Red Bulls) behind.”

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton will go from third and Ferrari's Carlos Sainz Jr. from fourth ahead of McLaren's Oscar Piastri and Verstappen, who leads the championship by a massive 110 points from second-place Perez.

Lando Norris qualifed seventh for McLaren, with George Russell in eighth for Mercedes ahead of Aston Martin teammates Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll.

The qualifying session was delayed for 10 minutes because of heavy rain and started under clearing skies but with the track still soaked.

“In these conditions it’s so easy for things to go wrong,” Perez said.

With conditions still slippery, Norris went wide into gravel but just managed to bring the car back before it hit the barriers.

AlphaTauri's Daniel Ricciardo, who had his lap time deleted for going off track limits, and Williams driver Alex Albon were among the five drivers eliminated from Q1, the first part of qualifying.

The circuit started drying a bit for Q2, but Alpine's Esteban Ocon damaged his front wing after going over gravel and failed to make it into Q3.

“It's a rare error from me, it was my fault," said Ocon, who crashed out of the Hungarian GP last weekend.

After only just scraping into Q3 in 10th, Verstappen unleashed a rant at his engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, letting fly with a couple of expletives.

Lambiase stood up to him firmly and received an apology afterward from Verstappen, who showed his searing pace on his final lap.

Verstappen will have his eyes on an eighth straight victory of a dominant season for a dominant Red Bull which has won all 11 races this season, and a F1 record 12 straight victory including the final race of last year.

The rain-marred first practice session took place amid gloomy conditions. It led governing body FIA to say the grid for Sunday's race would have been set in order of the championship standings if qualifying had to be canceled.

Because this weekend features a sprint race on Saturday, qualifying for Sunday's main race itself was on Friday with only one practice session beforehand.

It took place amid a downpour at the 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) Spa-Francorchamps circuit, located in the Ardennes forest.

With visibility poor due to the water spray and a slippery surface, drivers did not look to set competitive times.

Sainz had a leading time of 2 minutes, 3.2 seconds, while Verstappen was among the five drivers not to set a time.

Midway through the first practice session, Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu and Albon both slid off track, as did Albon’s teammate Logan Sargeant. The rookie American driver locked his tires, couldn’t turn and went straight on at Les Combes.

With his car parked by the barriers, a red flag came out.

Only a handful of drivers came out for the final minutes of the first practice, with fans dotted around the track huddling under umbrellas.

There is another qualifying session Saturday to sat the grid for the sprint race. It is the third sprint race of the season, with Perez and Verstappen winning one each.


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