Verstappen leads 1st practice in Baku; Perez crashes

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) - Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time in the first practice session for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Friday.

In last year's European Grand Prix in Baku, Hamilton struggled, found some pace, crashed in qualifying and, from 10th on the grid, battled with engine-setting problems to finish fifth.

Heading into the eighth race weekend of the season in Azerbaijan, Sebastian Vettel leads Hamilton by 12 points in the Driver Standings and only eight points now separate the teams in the race for the Constructors' Championship.

He improved from sixth to fourth but could not match team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who will start third on Sunday, and finished more than a second adrift of Hamilton.

"(There was) a lot of pressure because of getting temperature in the tyre but the lap just got better and better.

One suggestion is that although Hamilton has a contract for 2018, he might decide to "do a Rosberg" and make room at Mercedes for a younger driver if he wins the title.

Hamilton is confident Mercedes' issues with inconsistency this year have been resolved.

It was an improvement for Hamilton, after some difficulty on Friday.

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"That was one of the most exciting laps that I've had all year", he told Sky Sports. I locked up and I was still trying to make the corner and then I made a decision to play it safe and take the exit road. "They (the engineers) love that they have two drivers that they truly believe in and they know that, when they put their work in, both of us are going to deliver". "Tomorrow will be a long hard race but we're in the best position to start".

Those shunts meant Hamilton failed to set a time on the quicker supersoft tyres and he ended the day a second off the pace in 10th.

The Force India driver took too much kerb on entry, pitching the auto into the wall on the exit and causing significant damage to the front-right corner.

Impressive young Frenchman, Esteban Ocon, was seventh in the second Force India ahead of Massa, Raikkonen and Russian Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso.

"The stories I have heard are of a really cool place and so I am really looking forward to seeing it for myself".

And it was another terrible day for twice former champion Fernando Alonso, who will already start at the back of the grid tomorrow alongside teammate Stoffel Vandoorne after his McLaren team were penalised for using too many engine parts.

It's also the second-longest track on the calendar and the first anti-clockwise race of the season.

Romain Grosjean was 17th for Haas, struggling to find a balance, while Sauber's Marcus Ericsson was 18th.

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