Max Verstappen's Red Bull kicks up spray during the wet first practice session for the Malaysian Grand Prix. Picture: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Sepang, Malaysia - Max Verstappen set the pace ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo as Red Bull topped the timesheets in a rain-hit opening practice session for the Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix on Friday.

Verstappen, who will celebrate his 20th birthday on Saturday, lapped the 5.543km Sepang Circuit on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in a time of 1m48.962s. Ricciardo, who led Verstappen in a Red Bull one-two in the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix and was the first to get a time on the board on Friday, finished 0.757s slower than his team mate.

World championship leader Lewis Hamilton was 2.5 seconds off the pace in sixth, behind Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and championship rival Sebastian Vettel, who took advantage of a drying track to vault up the order in the closing stages.

Rain  stops play

The 90-minute session was delayed by half an hour after a tropical downpour lashed the circuit minutes before the scheduled start. The clock was not stopped, however, limiting drivers to just an hour of running time once practice got underway with plenty of fresh faces taking to the track for the session.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly, making his Formula One debut for Toro Rosso this weekend after being drafted in as a replacement for underperforming Russian Daniil Kvyat, was ninth fastest ahead of Renault reserve driver Sergey Sirotkin.

At Sauber, Ferrari-backed Charles Leclerc took over Marcus Ericsson's car for the first of four practice sessions the Formula 2 leader will drive by the end of the season. Leclerc, strongly tipped to race for Sauber, which uses Ferrari engines and has close ties to the Maranello-based squad, was 16th fastest ahead of Sauber regular Pascal Wehrlein.

Antonio Giovinazzi, another Ferrari-backed prospect who stood in for an injured Wehrlein at Sauber for the opening two races of the season, took over Romain Grosjean's car at Haas and finished 19th.

RESULTS

1 Max Verstappen (Netherlands) Red Bull - 1:48.962

2 Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull -  1:49.719

3 Fernando Alonso (Spain) McLaren - 1:50.597

4 Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari - 1:50.734

5 Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Ferrari - 1:51.009

6 Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes - 1:51.518

7 Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Mercedes - 1:52.007

8 Lance Stroll (Canada) Williams - Mercedes - 1:52.295

9 Pierre Gasly (France) Toro Rosso - 1:52.380

10 Sergey Sirotkin (Russia) Renault - 1:53.521

11 Jolyon Palmer (Britain) Renault - 1:53.625

12 Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium) McLaren - 1:53.771

13 Esteban Ocon (France) Force India - 1:53.896

14 Sean Gelael (Indonesia) Toro Rosso - 1:54.610

15 Sergio Perez (Mexico) Force India - 1:54.669

16. Charles Leclerc (Monaco) Sauber - 1:55.280

17 Pascal Wehrlein (Germany) Sauber - 1:55.652

18 Romain Grosjean (France) Haas - 1:56.211

19 Antonio Giovinazzi (Italy) Haas - 1:56.339

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