BAKU (AFP) - Charles Leclerc planted his Ferrari at the top of the times after practice on Friday (June 10) for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix with Red Bull's in-form Sergio Perez best of the rest.
Perez, the winner on the streets of Baku 12 months ago, arrived fresh from victory at Monaco which ignited talk of him as a viable title contender ahead of this eighth round of the season.
Mexico's most successful Formula One driver, only 15 points behind his world champion teammate Max Verstappen, was quick out of the blocks dominating first practice.
But in the later session he had to settle for second on the time sheets, 0.248sec behind Leclerc who on Saturday will be favourite to nail his sixth pole out of eight this term.
Verstappen, who has yet to even 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.
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.
He eventually came in 12th with George Russell in the other Mercedes in seventh.
The weekend's action on the Caspian Sea began with Perez telling a press conference 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 per cent 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".