REUTERS: Red Bull's Max Verstappen topped the practice timesheets for the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix on Friday, ahead of Renault's Daniel Ricciardo and championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
The Dutchman, third fastest in the first of Friday's two 90-minute sessions, vaulted to the top in the afternoon with a time of one minute, 43.744 seconds.
That put him a mere 0.048 seconds clear of Ricciardo with Hamilton also hot on his heels just 0.096 seconds behind.
"It's very close out there," said Hamilton, who completed a Mercedes one-two behind team mate and birthday boy Valtteri Bottas in the morning.
"I think the Red Bulls are just a little bit quicker at the moment but even Racing Point is right with us...
"We've got some work to do that's for sure to try and dial in the car a bit more, but it doesn't feel bad at all," the Briton added.
Hamilton has won four of this season's six races and is 37 points clear of Verstappen at the top of the overall standings.
In the form of his life he remains the favourite heading into Sunday's race.
Still, Verstappen, the only non-Mercedes driver to win a race this year, was competitive throughout Friday's running, ending the morning session only 0.081 seconds off Bottas' benchmark.
The speed his Red Bull displayed, confirmed by his team mate Alexander Albon setting the fourth-fastest time, bodes well for his hopes of a strong result at what is the closest he has to a home race.
"Car seems to handle well," Verstappen, who has a Belgian mother, said after the session.
"It's early days but from our side it's a good start.
"Overall I'm pretty happy," added the 22-year-old, who will not have his army of orange-clad Dutch fans cheering him on this weekend with the race held behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sergio Perez was fifth in his 2019 Mercedes-inspired Racing Point.
Friday morning pace-setter Bottas dropped down to sixth.
Lando Norris, whose mother is also Belgian, was seventh for McLaren ahead of Frenchman Esteban Ocon in the other Renault.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz was ninth in his McLaren ahead of Pierre Gasly who rounded out the top 10 for Alpha Tauri.
Ferrari, winners for the last two years in Belgium, continued to struggle.
Charles Leclerc, who took his maiden Formula One win at the Spa circuit last year, ended the day 15th. His team mate Sebastian Vettel, leaving Ferrari at the end of the year, was only 17th.
Friday's running, in cool, cloudy conditions, was largely incident-free.
Ricciardo suffered a loss of hydraulic pressure and had to park up his Renault halfway through the second session.
Bottas suffered a puncture late in the first session but made it back to the pits without incident.
American-owned Haas changed the power units on both their cars. They chalked up only 30 minutes of track time during the day.
The second session was also briefly halted by red flags due to debris on the track.
The capricious weather at Spa-Francorchamps threatened rain but held off, allowing both practice sessions to run on a dry track.
All cars carried special stickers in memory of Frenchman Anthoine Hubert, who suffered fatal injuries in a Formula Two race on the Saturday of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend last year.
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle in Mumbai; editing by Toby Davis)