By Abhishek Takle
SINGAPORE, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lapped fastest on the opening day of practice for the Singapore Grand Prix on Friday with Mercedes team mate and closest rival Valtteri Bottas hitting the wall.
Hamilton edged Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who had led the opening session, in the floodlit night-time practice with a best time of one minute, 38.773 seconds. The 21-year-old Dutchman was 0.186 seconds slower.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time winner in Singapore and chasing his first win for more than a year, was third on the timesheets after some difficulties with traffic.
"It's been a good day. It's so hot out there," said Hamilton.
"It's always a shock to the system when you get in the car here because it's very bumpy, it's a long, long lap and it's like a sauna in the car.
"I felt much better in the car today than I have for a while so I hope that stays over the weekend."
Hamilton, who has a 63-point lead over Bottas with seven races left, has won four times in Singapore including the last two years and is chasing an unprecedented fifth success in the city state.
Friday’s timesheets indicated the Briton faced a challenge from Verstappen, a two times winner this year, but remained the man to beat.
"I think they (Mercedes) are very much going to be the favourites here," said Red Bull boss Christian Horner. "But we’ve got a competitive car and hopefully we can take the fight to them."
Bottas, whose crash in opening practice prompted a brief halt to proceedings, enjoyed a trouble free run under the floodlights and ended both sessions fourth.
"I just lost the back end," he said. "Obviously here with no run-offs you pay the price. It can happen."
The Finn said the car had also lacked pace in the second session, possibly as a consequence of the crash.
"We need to have a look. It felt like I couldn't go any quicker but I was one second off the pace," he added.
Alexander Albon, in only his third race for Red Bull after switching from sister team Toro Rosso, stayed fifth despite running off the track into the barriers and breaking his front wing.
Sunday’s race in Singapore is the closest the British-born Thai rookie has to a home race.
Charles Leclerc, winner for Ferrari in Belgium and Italy, was only sixth. The Monegasque had to use a new gearbox after an issue sidelined him in the opening session.
Carlos Sainz was seventh for McLaren ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
The Spaniard’s team mate Lando Norris was ninth while Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly rounded out the top 10.
There was plenty of arm waving and complaining on the radio as drivers on a quick lap got held up behind slower cars on the tight circuit where overtaking is always tricky.
There were also some close calls with Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, in particular, squeezing the Haas of Kevin Magnussen against the wall in an incident that attracted the attention of the race stewards.
Perez, who was nursing a stomach bug, was later seen discussing the matter with Magnussen.
(Editing by Alan Baldwin/Hugh Lawson/Toby Davis/Pritha Sarkar)