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Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix 2024

Shock grass fire halts F1 return to China as Stroll stuns with leading time

One of the most bizarre sights seen in F1 caused a red flag, not that it stopped Lance Stroll from surprisingly finishing fastest

F1's return to China after a five-year absence was halted by one of the most bizarre sights witnessed in the sport's history as a shock grass fire took hold and halted the sole practice session at the Shanghai International Circuit.

The hour-long outing was only 15 minutes old when Alpine driver Esteban Ocon reported the fire on the inside of Turn 7 that soon caught hold, leading to an immediate red flag.

As with any such incident, fire marshals were quickly on the scene to douse the flickering flames that left behind a significant patch of scorched earth, resulting in a delay of only a few minutes, albeit still crucial time lost with F1 opting to make this weekend a sprint event.

A possible theory for the fire is that the track surface has recently been painted with bitumen to protect the original surface that has never been touched since the first event at the venue in 2004. Arguably, a spark from a passing car then ignited the grass.

At the finish, there was the equally stunning sight of Aston Martin's Lance Stroll leading the way with a time of 1:36.302s, just over three-tenths of a second faster than Oscar Piastri in his McLaren, leaving Red Bull's Max Verstappen trailing in third ahead of the sprint shootout later in the day.

It was a crucial hour-long session for all of the teams, and a journey into the unknown in many respects given the lengthy absence, in tandem with the fact this was the first time at this circuit with ground-effect cars and different Pirelli rubber.

It was no surprise that home hero Zhou Guanyu was one of the first cars on track in his Stake, to the cheers of the fans, although his initial sighter lap of 1:42.487s was almost two seconds slower than that of team-mate Valtteri Bottas who crossed the line shortly after.

It was equally unsurprising that virtually every car exited the pits within the first five minutes given the necessity to gather data as fast as possible, except Ferrari duo Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, seemingly waiting for a degree of track cleaning to be carried out before making their mark.

And after the first flying laps no prizes for guessing that Verstappen set the banker lap on the medium tyres with 1:39.497 before improving by a second soon after shortly before the bizarre red-flagging of the session.

With the teams engaging in different run plans across the hour, Leclerc and Sainz were amongst the first to try out the softs once the session resumed, and immediately the duo surged to the top of the timesheet, with the Monégasque posting a 1:38.130s, a quarter of a second clear of his team-mate.

Result Free practice 1 - Chinese

# Driver Team Time Tyre
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With just over 24 minutes remaining, Leclerc shaved 0.040s off of his leading time, whilst the majority of those below him opted for long-run outings for the majority of the session before switching to softs late on. It was apparent, though, Leclerc's SF-24 was heavy on fuel.

Once the red-striped rubber was on Verstappen's Red Bull, the three-time champion blasted his way to the top with a 1:36.660s, just over 1.3s clear of Leclerc, with his nearest challenger with five minutes remaining being Perez, half-a-second adrift.

Haas driver Magnussen then remarkably sandwiched himself in between the two Red Bulls before Piastri claimed top spot by just 0.031s.

It was the signal over the closing moments for a spray of flying laps on the softs, culminating in Stroll having the final say to post the best time, finishing just over three-tenths of a second faster than Piastri.

Behind third-placed Verstappen was Perez, followed by Haas pair Nico Hulkenberg and Magnussen, with Ocon seventh ahead of Alex Albon in his Williams, the RB of Daniel Ricciardo, and Bottas completing the top 10, the Finn 1.2s adrift.

Leclerc and Sainz had to settle for 13th and 14th behind Zhou and the second RB of Yuki Tsunoda.

Lewis Hamilton was a lowly 18th quickest, albeit on the hard tyre as were fellow Britons Lando Norris in his McLaren and Mercedes team-mate George Russell ahead of him, along with Fernando Alonso in his Aston Martin, 2.6s behind his team-mate.

Hamilton also faces a stewards' investigation. At the halfway stage, with Hamilton going slowly into Turn 16 and seemingly stuck in traffic, with Hulkenberg and Norris both behind, the seven-time champion was forced to take evasive action by escaping down the pit lane.

Hamilton, however, was shown a black-and-white flag due to his failing to stay to the right of a bollard on pit entry, going against the instructions of race director Niels Wittich.

To rub salt into his wounds, Hamilton later complained in the session that his car was "really bad".

Alpine's Pierre Gasly finished rock bottom, nearly three seconds down, and clearly angry as he finished the session with a radio blast. "Guys, this is not acceptable! I haven't learned anything. Absolutely nothing!"

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