Five-time champion Lewis Hamilton dominated Friday practice at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, topping the timesheets for Mercedes in both sessions to leave his Formula One title rivals well off the pace.
After pipping Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with a lap of one minute 23.599 seconds in the first practice, the Briton shaved almost a second in FP2, his quickest lap clocked at 1:22.60.
Although edging teammate Valtteri Bottas by only 0.048 seconds, Hamilton had a yawning 0.800 seconds gap to third fastest Max Verstappen, with Red Bull’s other driver, Pierre Gasly, fourth quickest.
“I have a positive buzz from driving the car today,” said an upbeat Hamilton.
“The car feels like it’s in a similar place to where it was in Barcelona (testing), which is positive coming to a different track. We got through our programme really well, there were no issues on track.”
Hamilton’s chief rival Vettel had a subdued FP2, finishing fifth quickest after taking a skid into the grass and complaining of a handling issue.
His new teammate Charles Leclerc finished ninth and also took a spin into the grass in the dying minutes.
With Ferrari slightly quicker than Mercedes in winter testing, pundits were quick to question whether the ‘Scuderia’ were ‘sandbagging’ — keeping their true pace in reserve ahead of Saturday’s qualifying.
While well off the pace, Verstappen posted his fastest lap at the start of a long run, meaning he likely had more fuel on board and would be faster in qualifying conditions.
With Gasly not far behind and no major issues for either car, Red Bull may feel satisfied with the debut of their Honda partnership, having split with engine makers Renault last year.
Verstappen shed little light on Red Bull’s potential.
“I think we cannot be satisfied yet … We have to understand the tyres a little bit more,” he said in the paddock.
“We saw a lot of things to possibly improve … but in general no big issues.”
It was an encouraging session for Kimi Raikkonen and Alfa Romeo.
The Finnish former world champion, who switched from Ferrari, was sixth fastest in the second session, giving the team formerly known as Sauber hope of being “the best of the rest”.
It looked like being a tight midfield battle, however, with both Renaults nipping at Raikkonen’s heels. Nico Hulkenberg and home hope Daniel Ricciardo, who switched from Red Bull, were seventh and eighth fastest respectively in FP2.
British-born Thai debutant Alexander Albon had a tough day, crashing his Toro Rosso to lose his front wing and causing a brief halt in the first session before spinning off track several times in the second.
Williams appear set for another season of toil as their Polish driver Robert Kubica, returning to Formula One after an absence of more than eight years, was 20th in second practice, one place behind rookie team mate George Russell.
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