The Mercedes driver ended up just 0.056 seconds clear of Verstappen after the first running on the spectacularly fast new Jeddah Corniche street circuit. Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas was 0.223secs off the pace, and declared the track “cool”.
Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points with two races remaining.
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Hamilton not comfortable racing in Saudi Arabia
The championship fight hangs in the balance, but in the context of each driver’s title hopes, it is more important for Hamilton to win in Saudi Arabia than Verstappen.
If Verstappen beats Hamilton, the Mercedes driver would need the Dutchman to hit trouble in the the final race in Abu Dhabi to overhaul him, whereas Verstappen can afford to finish second behind Hamilton in Jeddah and still be more or less level on points.
Verstappen made a blistering start to the session, well clear of the rest of the drivers for the first quarter of the session after quickly getting up to speed. But Mercedes upped their pace as the session went on to supplant him.
Verstappen was a couple of 10ths off Hamilton until a run right at the end of the session closed him up to his rival.
Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri was fourth quickest, ahead of the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi, the Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and the Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel.
The session was incident-free, perhaps a surprise given the track is so fast and there is limited run-off area, but the drivers were finding their way between the walls and minimising risk.
The second session, in which drivers will simulate qualifying and race pace, starts at 17:00 GMT and will be held under lights after night has fallen in Saudi Arabia.