Formula One: Verstappen edges Leclerc in Belgian GP practice, as grid penalties loom

Red Bull's Max Verstappen in action during the second practice session ahead of the Belgian grand prix. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, BELGIUM (AFP) - World champion and series leader Max Verstappen topped the times for Red Bull ahead of nearest rival Charles Leclerc of Ferrari in Friday's (Aug 26) second practice at the Belgian Grand Prix.

After being outpaced by Carlos Sainz in the opening morning session, the 24-year-old Dutchman bounced back to stamp his authority on proceedings with a fastest lap of one minute and 45.507 seconds.

That left Leclerc adrift by eight-tenths of a second around the majestic Spa-Francorchamps track where thousands of fans, including many in the visiting "orange army" of Verstappen supporters, were camped amid the pine trees.

On an inconclusive and slightly topsy-turvy day, Lando Norris was third for McLaren ahead of Aston Martin's Lance Stroll and Sainz, in the second Ferrari.

Wherever they qualify, the two leading title race contenders, separated by 80 points, are set to start from the back of the grid among a group of six drivers taking penalties for fitting new power-unit components.

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who is chasing a sixth consecutive podium position in Sunday's race, was sixth for Mercedes ahead of two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Alpine and George Russell, in the second Mercedes.

Daniel Ricciardo, who on Wednesday announced he will leave McLaren at the end of the year after agreeing to terminate his contract, was ninth and Sergio Perez 10th in the second Red Bull.

After a short downpour at the end of opening practice, the second session began in dry conditions, but with many heads turning to the skies in expectation of more rain from the capricious microclimate at the sprawling Ardennes circuit.

The usual suspects were soon back in control at the top of the timing monitors with Verstappen leading the way ahead of Sainz and Leclerc.

Eighty points separates Ferrari's Charles Leclerc (above) from world championship leader Max Verstappen, of Red Bull. PHOTO: AFP

Sainz regained top spot briefly after 28 minutes, but the Dutchman responded with a lap in 1:45.507 to move eight-tenths clear of Leclerc, who slotted into second behind him.

By the end of their soft tyre running, the two remained ahead of Norris, Stroll, Sainz and Hamilton with Alonso taking seventh.

By then, also, it was clear that at least six drivers were due to face grid penalties for taking new power unit components led by Verstappen, Leclerc, Norris, Estaban Ocon, Valtteri Bottas and Mick Schumacher, a group that ensures a dynamic opening lap is in prospect on Sunday.

Rain began to fall again with 12 minutes remaining, prompting an array of coloured umbrellas rising around the track as the drivers began slithering wide and sliding into gravel traps.

With six minutes to go, all 20 cars were back in the pits only to venture out again for an exploratory lap and some practice starts.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.