* Hamilton fastest in both sessions
* Red Bull’s Ricciardo second best in the later stint
* Championship leader Vettel fifth
* France back on the calendar for first time in a decade (Adds quotes)
By Alan Baldwin
LE CASTELLET, France, June 22 (Reuters) - Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton made the most of a more powerful new Mercedes engine to lap fastest in free practice for France’s first grand prix in a decade on Friday.
While the Briton led both sessions on a sizzling day at Le Castellet, traffic gridlock on the roads leading to the southern Paul Ricard circuit meant many fans missed much of the action with rows of empty seats in the grandstands.
There was also drama on track, with Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson crashing his Sauber in the first session and clambering out with the car on fire.
A wheel then came off Sergio Perez’s Force India car at speed on the Mistral straight in the late afternoon.
Hamilton, a point behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after seven races, complained about his car’s handling over the radio in the first session but still put in a best time of one minute 32.231 seconds.
The four times champion’s best time in the second was 1:32.539, with Mercedes finally giving him the updated engine after delaying its introduction in Canada two weekends ago due to a technical issue.
The latter time was a considerable 0.704 faster than Red Bull’s Australian Daniel Ricciardo, the best of the rest.
“This place is beautiful, it’s really stunning down here,” Hamilton said of a circuit that last hosted a grand prix in 1990 and represents a new challenge for a man who has won everywhere else on the calendar.
“The new engine feels clean and fresh, but we won’t really know its full potential until tomorrow when everyone gets to turn their engines up,” he added.
Hamilton’s Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas, also with a new Mercedes engine in his car, was second fastest in the initial stint but seventh in the second after his car developed a water leak.
The 90-minute opening session was red-flagged with a minute remaining when Ericsson lost control at the Beausset corner, spun and hit the barriers hard, with the Sauber car then catching fire.
The Swede worryingly remained in the car before marshals arrived with an extinguisher and he clambered out from underneath the halo head-protection system.
Video images later showed extensive scorching to the rear of the car and the Swede was unable to take part in second practice due to the damage.
Ricciardo, winner of two races this season and still mulling his future options, was third fastest for Red Bull in the first session in 1:32.527.
“We were relatively fast today, in the long runs we looked a bit up and down so definitely a bit of work to do tonight, but not a bad Friday,” commented the Australian.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was fourth on the timesheets in both sessions, with Vettel also fifth in both.
“The long-runs felt pretty OK, quite consistent,” said Vettel. “The wind was quite an issue at the beginning of the session, but then it calmed down and it all started to come together. In the end I was reasonably happy with today’s run.”
Williams and McLaren, two of the sport’s most successful teams who are going through difficult times, continued to struggle.
Spain’s double world champion Fernando Alonso, winner at the Le Mans 24 Hours with Toyota last weekend, was only 16th in the first session but improved to eighth in the second. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin Editing by Catherine Evans)