Max Verstappen sets practice pace in Belgium before late crash

Lewis Hamilton finished third as Max Verstappen clocked the fastest time before crashing out in practice for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Hamilton, who holds an eight-point lead to Verstappen, ended the second action of the day at Spa-Francorchamps 0.072 seconds adrift of his championship rival.

Valtteri Bottas split the title protagonists with the top-three drivers separated by less than a tenth on Formula One’s return to action following its four-week summer shutdown.

Hamilton is bidding to become the first driver to win the championship eight times and heads into the second half of the campaign with a slender advantage over Verstappen.

The Dutchman had been as many as 33 points ahead of Hamilton, but following their 180mph collision on the opening lap of the British Grand Prix – a race Hamilton went on to win – and Hamilton’s comeback drive from last to second in Hungary earlier this month, it is the Mercedes man who will be deemed the slight favourite to take the title spoils.

With the clock ticking down on the second running of the afternoon here, Verstappen hit the barriers.

He lost control of his Red Bull through Malmedy, sliding backwards through the gravel and into the wall.

“It is finished,” said a frustrated Verstappen over the radio. “I suddenly lost the rear.”

The red flags were issued and the session was not re-started with Verstappen sustaining superficial damage to the rear of his car.

The 23-year-old will be fine to participate in qualifying on Saturday, but the late accident might dent his confidence ahead of what will be another significant weekend in the hottest championship battle of recent memory.

Verstappen was not the only high-profile name to fall victim to the challenging Spa-Francorchamps track, with Charles Leclerc also in the wars.

The Ferrari driver spun on the exit of Les Combes, collecting the tyre wall on the opposing side of the track.

Leclerc sustained damage to the front-left of his Ferrari, but walked away unscathed from the accident.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso finished fourth for Alpine ahead of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly.

Sergio Perez, who has signed a contract extension to remain alongside Verstappen at Red Bull next year, was only 10th, a second off the pace.

Mick Schumacher is marking his father’s F1 debut in Belgium by wearing a special helmet. Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher announced himself in the sport at this venue three decades ago and his son is sporting a design based on the one worn by his father back in 1991.

Schumacher Jnr propped up the order, finishing last of the 20 runners in his Haas.