Albon on top in Brazil practice before crashing in the rain

Sao Paulo (AFP) –


Red Bull new boy Alexander Albon topped the times and crashed in the rain in Friday's opening free practice at this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix.

The London-born Thai driver, whose place with the team for 2020 was confirmed this week, clocked a best lap in one minute and 16.142 seconds on intermediate tyres, but lost control as soon as he switched to slicks in the final minutes.

The session was red-flagged and did not re-start.

Just 60 seconds after his team-mate Max Verstappen had spun and recovered, on his first lap on slicks, Albon fell victim to the conditions, sliding off into a wall and damaging the right front wheel of his car.

He wound up fastest ahead of Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas and the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, with Carlos Sainz fifth for McLaren.

Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton did not clock a time in his Mercedes, taking a cautious approach to avoid taking risks.

Heavy rain overnight resulted in only the Ferraris, led by Vettel, and then both Alfa Romeos, Kimi Raikkonen leading, risking the conditions.

After 20 minutes, however, everyone bar Hamilton and the Racing Point and Red Bull teams had been out in the rain.

Carlos Sainz was the first man to set any kind of lap time with 1:23.689 in his McLaren after 24 minutes, a full 14 seconds slower than the lap time in the same session in 2018.

As conditions improved, the Spaniard trimmed that by 1.5 seconds.

The Racing Points soon joined the action while the Red Bulls and Hamilton, sporting a new Ayrton Senna-esque helmet with a yellow, blue and green on top, prepared for work.

- Hamilton's 'stressful' contract negotiations -

For the Briton, loved by the fans at Interlagos where he won his first title in 2008, this weekend held significance as, two weeks after retaining his title, he said he was ready to embark on "stressful" negotiations with Mercedes for a new contract.

His current deal runs out at the end of 2020, leaving him free to talk to anyone else – including rivals Ferrari -- ahead of the introduction of F1's radical formula for the new era from 2021 and beyond.

"I only just did this contract and, already, I have to start talking about potentially the next one, which is frustrating because it is another stressful moment when you have to get into the room, into the ring, and have a friendly, yet intense, conversation about terms," he explained.

"But, I am used to it and I like to think that I am a relatively good negotiator... I think it is just confrontation isn't it? You're both trying to see what more you can get out of it...

"It won't be really stressful to be honest."

Hamilton admitted that team chief Toto Wolff, who is absent in Brazil as he missed his first race since 2013, is a key factor in his own considerations. The Austrian has been linked to a possible role in managing F1.

"He is, and has been, close to perfect," said Hamilton. "It's been the perfect match so naturally I don't want him to leave, particularly if I'm staying in the sport, but ultimately that is going to be his choice."

Leclerc had trimmed the top time to 1:17.285 by the time Hamilton ventured out. When Vettel took top spot in 1:17.041, the leading men were only eight seconds off last year's pace.

Encouraged, Bottas went top on intermediates before being beaten by Albon as Red Bull joined the fray.