Leclerc fastest with Ferrari early in F1 tests in Barcelona




Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco steers his car during a Formula One pre-season testing session at the Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, just outside of Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc was fastest on the opening morning of Formula One’s first preseason test session Wednesday as the revamped 2022 cars hit the track for the first time following one of the biggest regulation changes in the sport.

Leclerc set a time of 1 minute, 20.165 seconds at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit, finishing ahead of McLaren driver Lando Norris.

Defending champion Max Verstappen ran the most laps with Red Bull but finished only sixth fastest. George Russell, Lewis Hamilton’s new Mercedes teammate, ended third, ahead of the Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel. Fernando Alonso, the oldest driver on the grid at age 40, was seventh with Alpine.

Hamilton is set to take over for Mercedes in the afternoon session.

“Looking down the pit lane and seeing all the different cars, I think it’s one of the most exciting and interesting seasons that I’ve ever embarked upon,” Hamilton said. “It will be interesting to see where everyone comes out and where we stand in the first race.”

It was the first of three consecutive days of testing in Barcelona. Three more are scheduled for March 10-12 in Bahrain ahead of the season-opener on March 20.

Red Bull’s new radical sidepods attracted attention with a different design compared to most other teams. Many different design packages were on display as teams resorted to varied solutions to comply with the new regulations. Most teams used aero rakes on their cars to gather data about airflow and downforce.

F1 revamped its regulations to try to improve racing and make the series more competitive, with new aerodynamic and tire requirements that hopefully will allow drivers to race closer together and create more overtaking. The older cars would lose downforce — and their ability to go through turns faster — the closer they got to the cars ahead.

Cars look and feel different with new rear and front wings, as well as bigger wheels. They are also heavier than the previous generation and use a higher ratio of sustainable fuel.

Sporting a camouflage livery, Alfa Romeo struggled in the morning session, with reserve driver Robert Kubica running only a few laps. Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s former teammate at Mercedes, will take over in the afternoon. Carlos Sainz will replace Leclerc for Ferrari.

The last time F1 underwent drastic rule changes was in 2014, when the turbo-hybrid era started. In 2017, F1 had already introduced design changes that made cars wider and faster to try to make the series more exciting, though that didn’t keep Mercedes and Red Bull from dominating.

F1 is coming off one of its greatest seasons as Verstappen and Hamilton battled for the title to the end, with Verstappen winning on the last lap of the last race to end Mercedes’ seven-year dominance.

It will be the longest F1 season yet with 23 races, including the Miami Grand Prix debuting in May on a street course. Races in Japan, Canada, Australia and Singapore have returned after dropping out because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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