LE CASTELLET, France (AP) — Lewis Hamilton was fastest in Friday's two practice sessions for the French Grand Prix, while his top rival struggled to figure out the unfamiliar track as Formula One returned to the country for the first time in a decade.
Sebastian Vettel, who leads Mercedes driver Hamilton by one point after seven of 21 races this year, had trouble adapting to the 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) Paul Ricard Circuit and was fifth fastest in the morning and in the afternoon.
The track, situated in wooded hills just inland from the Cote d'Azur, basked in the Mediterranean sun but was subject to gusting winds.
"The car is quick but I wasn't able to be quick with the car today, it's as simple as that," Vettel said. "I think it is a tricky track, not easy to get in a good ride start to finish.
"Over the long run I was able to play a little more and find some (driving) lines. Let's see if we can start from there tomorrow. We should have more of a rhythm."
There will be another practice session on Saturday before qualifying for Sunday's race.
Hamilton benefited from an engine upgrade that Mercedes failed to roll out in the last round when the British driver lost his lead to Vettel.
"It's always a challenge when you come to a new circuit, but you're constantly learning new things and I love the challenge of trying to get into the swing of it before everyone else," Hamilton said.
"There's a lot of different lines you can take and it's tricky to find reference points out on the track."
Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas registered the second best time of the day before a water leak kept him in the garage for the final minutes.
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo, fourth in the overall standings behind Bottas, was third quickest on Friday.
The morning session ended with a scare for Sauber's Marcus Ericsson after his car burst into flames when he spun out of control and slammed into a barrier. The Swedish driver was unharmed.
Hamilton also had a close call when forced to swerve off course to avoid ramming Stoffel Vandoorne and slalomed around two rows of bollards before returning to the flow.
The four-time world champion said on his team radio that the McLaren driver was going "dangerously slow".
Minutes later, Hamilton complained his Mercedes was having trouble turning. After coming back out, though, he quickly went to the top of the timesheet.
Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Brendon Hartley (Toro Rosso), Esteban Ocon (Force India) and Vandoorne all spun onto the blue-striped run-off areas at Turn Six but stopped before hitting the barrier.
Charles Leclerc twice spun to a brief stop, while Max Verstappen drove his Red Bull wide on consecutive corners and Kevin Magnussen had a near miss with Sergio Perez.
Vettel said the winds picked up after the lunch break, telling his team it was "quite gusty so the track is a lot slower" than the morning.
The second session was momentarily stopped while crews helped retrieve Perez's Force India after the back left wheel came off as he drove over a curb, sending the car sliding across the tarmac.
Fernando Alonso also spun his McLaren.
Vettel took his one-point lead two weeks ago when he won the Canadian GP. That victory erased a 14-point advantage held by Hamilton as the British driver finished fifth.
The last time Le Castellet held an F1 race was in 1990, when French great Alain Prost won for Ferrari.
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