This season’s narrow championship leader was .43 seconds ahead of the Red Bull driver in warm conditions. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was .48 behind Hamilton in third spot with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas fourth.
There is a second practice later Friday at Istanbul Park.
Hamilton leads Verstappen by two points with seven races to go including this one.
But the Mercedes driver’s lead could well be lost on Sunday as Hamilton starts the race with a 10-place grid penalty for going over his allocation of three engines for the season. Mercedes fitted a fourth combustion engine on Friday.
The Istanbul track proved much more reliable than last year, when it had just been re-laid to host an F1 race for the first time since 2011 and was far too slippery.
Drivers complained last year about the surface on the 3.3-mile course, with Verstappen comparing it to an ice rink. He placed sixth in that race after qualifying in second spot, while Hamilton rose from sixth on the grid to win and clinch a record-equaling seventh world title.
Red Bull is powered by Honda engines, but the Japanese manufacturer is pulling out of F1 at the end of 2021. In honor of Honda, both Red Bull and feeder team AlphaTauri have special liveries on their cars for this race, which replaced the Japanese GP after it was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
The Red Bulls used a predominantly white livery, inspired by the Honda that American driver Richie Ginther powered to victory at the 1965 Mexican GP.
Pierre Gasly and home favorite Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauris had “Arigato”—Japanese for thank you—written on the rear wings.
Verstappen is a major threat to Hamilton’s bid for an eighth world title to surpass Michael Schumacher and stand alone among F1 greats. He leads Hamilton 7-5 for wins this season and 7-3 for pole positions.