Lewis Hamilton continued his fine recent form by posting the fastest time in opening practice for the Italian Grand Prix.
Hamilton won last Sunday’s race in Belgium to reduce the deficit to championship leader Sebastian Vettel to just seven points ahead of his Ferrari team’s home race in Monza this weekend.
The high-powered nature of this famous circuit – the so-called ‘Temple of Speed’ – is, just like the final round in Spa-Francorchamps, expected to suit Hamilton’s Mercedes car. And the early signs were encouraging for the 32-year-old Englishman on Friday.
Hamilton, who will surpass Michael Schumacher’s all-time record with pole position on Saturday, was comfortably quickest in the first session, leading the way from his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, with Vettel third.
Hamilton’s best lap of one minute and 21.537 seconds enabled him to finish the 90-minute session nearly half-a-second clear of Bottas.
Vettel, who is bidding to become the first Ferrari driver to win in Italy since Fernando Alonso’s triumph back in 2010, was 1.1 sec adrift of Hamilton, with his Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen marginally further back in fourth.
Dark clouds lingered over the 3.6-mile circuit for much of the morning, but despite the arrival of light rain in the final 10 minutes, practice was completed in largely dry conditions.
Behind the Mercedes and Ferrari cars, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen finished fifth and sixth – but both Red Bull drivers are expected to serve large grid penalties ahead of predicted engine changes.
Alonso is also due to start Sunday’s race from the back of the field after McLaren’s beleaguered partner Honda confirmed the Spaniard will serve a 35-place drop following further engine penalties.
The 36-year-old, out of contract with McLaren at the end of the year, was only 15th in opening practice with his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne ninth.
British driver Jolyon Palmer is one of only two drivers yet to score a point this season, and he was a discouraging 18th on Friday.
Meanwhile, Force India team-mates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, who have both vowed to move on from their collisions in Belgium, were seventh and eighth, with Felipe Massa 10th for Williams.