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Hamilton leads the way in Baku practice


By Alan Baldwin

BAKU (Reuters) - Triple world champion Lewis Hamilton lapped fastest in practice as Formula One made its debut in Azerbaijan on Friday.

The Mercedes driver, who said on Thursday that he had no intention of inspecting the track beforehand because he wanted it to be a completely fresh experience in the car, lapped in a best time of one minute 46.435 seconds.

The Briton, winner of the last two races and now only nine points adrift of team mate Nico Rosberg after seven of 21 rounds, was 0.377 faster than the German at the top of the timesheets.

Sunday's race is billed as the European Grand Prix, a designation that has previously been given to circuits in Germany, Britain and Spain rather than a country at the crossroads of Asia and Europe.

Championship leader Rosberg was the first to set a timed lap of the 6.003km anti-clockwise track, which winds around the medieval walled city before a long blast along the Caspian Seafront.

Mexican Esteban Gutierrez, in a Haas, was first to leave the pit lane and also first to leave the track when he made a mistake at turn 15.

Expectations of top speeds of around 340kph proved conservative with Finland's Valtteri Bottas, in a Williams, hitting 351kph early on.

Australian Daniel Ricciardo brought out the red flags to halt the session with 22 minutes remaining after he clouted the barrier at turn 15, the impact ripping off his Red Bull's rear right wheel.

"It will be a rush to turn the car around for session two," said Red Bull principal Christian Horner. "For all the teams it is stretching the spare part with the three street tracks in succession."

Baku follows on from the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal last weekend and Monaco before that.

Hamilton did not go out again after the red flag, Mercedes saying that one of the front tyres was too badly 'flat-spotted' -- a worn patch caused by locking under braking -- to do a planned long run.

The Briton also had a brush with the wall at turn three, while Rosberg complained he could feel something out of place behind his seat.

Bottas was third fastest and McLaren's Fernando Alonso, an 'official ambassador' for the race, fourth. Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel was fifth.

Red Bull's 18-year-old Dutch driver Max Verstappen was sidelined for much of the session as mechanics changed the clutch in his car.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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