DJEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Lewis Hamilton may not feel comfortable racing in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, but his reluctance to compete in the country has not manifested on the track: the seven-time world champion was the fastest in Friday’s two practice sessions on the brand new Formula 1 circuit.

Hamilton led Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in the Friday night session, which ended about three minutes earlier because Charles LeClerc pulled out the red flag with a high-speed crash on Turn 22.

In Friday’s opening session, Hamilton led championship leader Max Verstappen in the speed standings. The Red Bull driver holds an eight-point lead over Hamilton with two races to go, including Sunday’s debut on the second longest course in the F1 schedule.

The high-speed street circuit is 6.2 kilometers (3.8 miles), with 27 turns (16 left turns, 11 right turns) built along a 30 kilometer (18.6 miles) in Jeddah. Workers rushed to complete the circuit ahead of the inaugural F1 event in Saudi Arabia – the track itself was built in about eight months and finishes are still underway this week – but parts of the installation remain in construction.

Hamilton was the most outspoken driver about F1’s visit to Saudi Arabia, a country which has been accused by human rights groups of “sports washing” by organizing Sunday’s race to hijack attention to abuse across the country.

F1 ends its season with three consecutive races in the Middle East and four total stops in the region on the 2021 calendar. Hamilton spoke in Bahrain and Qatar and said on Thursday he would not choose to race in Saudi Arabia . The season will end next week in Abu Dhabi.

“As I said (in Qatar), I think sport and we have a duty to try to help raise awareness of some issues that we have seen, especially human rights in those countries where we’re going, ”Hamilton said. “Do I feel comfortable here?” I wouldn’t say yes. But it’s not my choice to be here, sport has made the choice to be here. Whether it’s good or bad, while we’re here again, I think it’s important that we try to raise awareness.

Hamilton launched a Progress Pride flag helmet in Qatar to support the LBGTQ + community. He said he would wear it to Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi as he tried to raise awareness about laws against same-sex relationships.

“The law, if anyone wants to take the time to read what the law is for the LGBTQ + community, that’s pretty terrifying. There are changes that need to be made, ”said Hamilton, who added that the changes to the laws were not straightforward.

“For example, the rights of women to be able to drive in 2018… are they really in force? Why are some women still in prison for driving so many years ago? “Hamilton asked.” There are a lot of changes that need to happen and I think our sport needs to do more. “

Despite trying to draw attention to human rights issues off the track, Hamilton has remained relaxed about it in his attempt to win a record-breaking eighth championship. Verstappen is looking for his first career title and the Dutchman has been the more dominant of the two this season.

But Hamilton succeeded with two straight wins before Sunday.

Verstappen can mathematically win the championship in Saudi Arabia, but Hamilton also has the ability to leave the circuit tied with the Dutchman in the standings.

Hamilton said there were differences in this title fight from his previous battles, but the British pilot said he has never been so relaxed.

“It’s different in a way because we have two incredibly close teams,” said Hamilton. “It’s different because as a team we are fighting for uncharted territory. No one has ever won eight titles, team or driver, so it’s pretty fresh and new. And then on the other side, I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been because I’ve been here for a long time. It’s not my first. “

Hamilton reduced Verstappen’s lead by 11 points in the last two races.

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