Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco steers his car during the second free practice for Sunday's Formula One race, at the Monaco racetrack, in Monaco, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco steers his car during the second free practice for Sunday's Formula One race, at the Monaco racetrack, in Monaco, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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MONACO (AP) — On an encouraging day for Ferrari, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. impressed in the first two practice sessions for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday.

Leclerc was fastest in the afternoon's second run, while Sainz Jr. placed second in both of them.

“It’s nice to see at least that we are closer to the front, that we’re actually playing around there at the front,” Sainz Jr. said. “We definitely look very close to being a genuine threat. (But) I think we need to wait until third practice, because things change a lot here.”

Still, it will come as some relief for Ferrari after it struggled badly throughout last year in qualifying and on race day.

Leclerc is from Monaco and grew up in a flat overlooking the sinewy 3.4-kilometer (2.1-mile) circuit that snakes around the picturesque principality.

He had a best lap in P2 of 1 minute, 11.68 seconds and led the Spaniard Sainz Jr. by 0.11 seconds. World champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes was third, 0.39 behind Leclerc.

The last Ferrari driver to win in Monaco was Sebastian Vettel four years ago, but Hamilton was impressed by what he saw in the two sessions.

“The Ferraris look really strong, surprising to see them improving so much but that's great," Hamilton said. “It means more competition. We've got some work to do.”

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was fourth fastest and Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas was fifth.

“We were too slow and we really need to find some pace,” Verstappen said. “I usually feel quite comfortable in the car but that has not come yet.”

It was a welcome turnaround for Leclerc after he completed only four laps in the first practice because of a gearbox problem.

Both sessions were held in warm conditions as bright sunlight glittered and yachts bobbed on the waters of the famed harbor, while some fans returned to the stands after the race was canceled last year because of the coronavirus.

“Everyone loves to drive here. Great day, weather's been great, just feels really cool to be back,” said Hamilton, who lives in Monaco. “It's rapid this track, absolutely mesmerizing every time you get the opportunity to drive. I've enjoyed today.”

Hamilton was pleasantly surprised by the improved grip on the track.

“It's got really high grip this year for some reason, they've redone the surface for most of the track," he said. "We were quicker than last year, which was awesome.”

Vettel's second outing was far from fun, though, as he got something stuck in his left eye.

“It wasn’t bleeding, but I said (on team radio) either I’m emotional, or something else is going on because it was just tears and tears,” Vettel said. “I was blinking the whole lap. Not ideal on a track like this.”

His Aston Martin team made him an eye patch to wear.

“Probably I’ll keep that and it will keep me safe for the rest of the weekend,” the four-time F1 champion joked.

Earlier Thursday, Red Bull's Sergio Perez was fastest in the first run ahead of Sainz Jr. and Verstappen, with Hamilton fifth quickest.

“It’s encouraging for the team,” Sainz Jr. said, adding that Ferrari seems to have ironed out some old flaws. “”There’s some positive signs that the car in the corners is actually not that bad.”

Hamilton is 14 points ahead of Verstappen in the standings after they finished 1-2 in the first four races, with the British veteran winning three of them. Hamilton will be aiming for his 101st career pole position on Saturday and his 99th win on Sunday.

He is also looking to clinch a record eighth F1 title this season to move one ahead of Michael Schumacher, who won the Monaco GP in 2001 to tie the late Graham Hill with five victories at F1's showcase race. The late Ayrton Senna holds the record with six wins, while Hamilton's success in 2019 was his third.

Monaco is the only race that has no track activity on Friday, which is a rest day.

“Luckily we have a free day tomorrow to look at a few things to improve,” Verstappen said.

There is a third practice and then qualifying on Saturday.

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