Max Verstappen leads Abu Dhabi practice; Lewis Hamilton fifth in return session

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YAS ISLAND, Abu Dhabi — Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday in the first practice for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The Red Bull driver was 0.34 seconds ahead of Mercedes rival Valtteri Bottas and 1.14 seconds quicker than Renault driver Esteban Ocon.

Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton returned for Mercedes after a bout with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and had the fifth fastest time. He struggled early in the session with a brake sensor issue that needed to be repaired in the team garage.

The Mercedes team announced Thursday that Hamilton had recovered from COVID-19, which returned to George Russell (who led 57 laps and nearly won last Sunday in place of Hamilton at Bahrain) with Williams in Sunday’s race.

Hamilton, who just clinched his seventh world championship, tested positive for COVID-19 the day after winning the Bahrain GP on Nov. 29 and missed last weekend’s Sakhir GP in Bahrain as he self-isolated for 10 days.

“Lewis tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday prior to completion of his self-isolation period in Bahrain. This enabled him to travel to Abu Dhabi on Thursday afternoon, and he tested negative on arrival,” Mercedes said in a statement. “Lewis has therefore completed the protocols required by the FIA for his entry to the paddock and will be able to take part in the race weekend.”

Governing body FIA confirmed that Hamilton was free to leave Bahrain according to the health authority regulations in place.

“Yeah, something’s not right”

“Okay, box, box”

Potentially an early braking issue for Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes – he’s in the pits getting it checked out now#AbuDhabiGP 🇦🇪 #F1 pic.twitter.com/7zHonO5nIM

— Formula 1 (@F1) December 11, 2020

There are two practice sessions in Abu Dhabi on Friday. A second practice will be held later Friday at the Yas Marina circuit.

Hamilton has won the Abu Dhabi GP a record five times, including the past two years.

Sunday will also feature Sebastian Vettel’s last race with Ferrari after joining the Italian team in 2015. The four-time F1 champion, who has struggled most of the season, is racing for Aston Martin next year.

Bahrain winner Sergio Perez (McLaren) and Kevin Magnussen (Haas F1 Team) also will be making the last starts with their teams. Both will start from the rear Sunday because of penalties for using new equipment.