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Verstappen leads practice at Imola ahead of qualifying

Max Verstappen posted the fastest time in the final practice for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix to boost his chances of taking pole position later Saturday.

The Red Bull driver was nearly half a second faster than the rest of the pack. He was 0.456 seconds ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and .557 clear of world champion Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.

Mercedes led the two practice sessions on Friday with Valtteri Bottas fastest in both, just ahead of Hamilton as Red Bull endured a tough start to the weekend.

Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz of Spain is chased by Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands during free practice for Sunday's Emilia Romagna Formula One Grand Prix, at the Imola track, Italy, Saturday, April 17, 2021. (AP PhotoLuca Bruno)

Verstappen’s second practice lasted just 10 minutes after a driveshaft problem.

Bottas was only eighth-fastest on Saturday, nearly a second slower than Verstappen.

The Emilia-Romagna GP is the second race of the Formula One season. Hamilton won the opener in Bahrain last month, just ahead of Verstappen after a thrilling duel.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during free practice for Sunday's Emilia Romagna Formula One Grand Prix, at the Imola track, Italy, Saturday, April 17, 2021. (AP PhotoLuca Bruno)

That race was effectively decided when Verstappen overtook Hamilton but went too wide on a turn and off the track limits. He was told by his team to give Hamilton the position back.

Track limits could also pose a problem at Imola as several drivers had their times deleted after running wide on Turn Nine.

Saturday’s practice was briefly red-flagged after Nicholas Latifi lost control at the Villeneuve chicane and slid through the gravel and into the barriers.

Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas of Finland steers his car at pits during free practice for Sunday's Emilia Romagna Formula One Grand Prix, at the Imola track, Italy, Saturday, April 17, 2021. (AP PhotoLuca Bruno)

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Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz of Spain at pits during free practice for Sunday's Emilia Romagna Formula One Grand Prix, at the Imola track, Italy, Saturday, April 17, 2021. (AP PhotoLuca Bruno)

Ferrari sport director Mattia Binotto walks the pit lane during free practice for Sunday's Emilia Romagna Formula One Grand Prix, at the Imola track, Italy, Saturday, April 17, 2021. (AP PhotoLuca Bruno)

Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi of Italy goes out in the gravel during free practice for Sunday's Emilia Romagna Formula One Grand Prix, at the Imola track, Italy, Saturday, April 17, 2021. (AP PhotoLuca Bruno)