Monaco winners Red Bull weren’t meant to be as quick around the power-hungry Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve. But nobody had told Max Verstappen, who topped Friday’s first practice in Canada by the narrowest of margins – just 0.088s – from Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.
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Their team mates, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas, were third and fifth respectively, split by the leading Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, whose team mate Kimi Raikkonen took sixth.
Less than half a second covered them all. It should be noted, however, that unlike their rivals, Mercedes did not use Pirelli’s fastest hypersoft tyre, limiting their running to the supersoft and ultrasoft rubber.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the opening session was the performance of McLaren, who battled near the top of the timesheet throughout. Fernando Alonso, celebrating his 300th Grand Prix appearance this weekend, was six-tenths behind Verstappen in seventh, two places ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne. The Belgian claimed on Thursday that he is ‘very closely matched’ with his team mate and will certainly look to close the gap in the day’s second session later.
The fifth-quickest team, Renault, will have mixed feelings about this session. Carlos Sainz came home in eighth but his team mate Nico Hulkenberg's morning ended without setting a time after suffering an apparent gear-selection issue. It prompted first a Virtual Safety Car, and then a 12-minute red-flag stoppage as his stricken car was recovered.
Making up the top ten was the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly, who moved ahead of Force India’s Esteban Ocon late on. His team mate Brendon Hartley, meanwhile, endured an underwhelming 90 minutes and had to make do with P16.
Ocon ultimately came 11th, finishing the session 1.769s behind the pacesetter. Driving the other VJM11 was Nicholas Latifi, who made his FP1 debut in place of Sergio Perez, and the Canadian finished the 90 minutes as the slowest of the 19 drivers to have set a time.
Over at Haas, Romain Grosjean put in a morale-boosting performance to finish 12th. The Frenchman and his team mate Kevin Magnussen, who had to settle for P15, were warned by Team Principal Guenther Steiner not to crash this weekend, and they both duly kept their noses clean.
They were split by the Sauber pair of Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc. It was Ericsson who was the leading C37 in 13th, though the Swede had an unsettling moment late on when a lock-up left him facing the wrong way on track.
Near the bottom of the order again were Williams, with local hero Lance Stroll taking the dubious honour of being the first to hit Montreal’s infamous Wall of Champions, puncturing his right-rear tyre as he swiped the concrete. In the other FW41 was 17th-placed Sergey Sirotkin, who clipped the wall at Turn 6 just before the chequered flag.
So what can we take from this session? As predicted by Vettel on Thursday, Red Bull will be dangerous here in Canada. It was also a promising start from Mercedes, who displayed their pace without running the quickest hypersoft tyre. And it was a huge step forwards for McLaren too, who led the way as the ‘best of the rest’.