Melbourne FP2: Hamilton fastest but it is close at the top

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton may have topped the timing screens at the end of both the free practice sessions on the first day of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix weekend, but it may be a lot closer at the sharp end than it appears.

Will Mercedes walk away with it again this season or not?

That’s the big question that has lingered in the Formula 1 paddock since preseason testing Barcelona and now, more tellingly, after the first day of free practice in Melbourne, it is fair to say that the Mercedes W09 looks to be a handy piece of kit but their rivals may not be far behind…

Hamilton was fastest at the end of the morning session by three-quarters of a second, but in the afternoon it was much closer at the top with the Mercedes driver lapping Albert Park in the best time of 1:23.931, fractionally faster than his morning time but three tenths slower than the time he set in FP2 last year at the same venue.

Next best, only a tenth down on the top time was Max Verstappen in the Red Bull splitting the Silver Arrows on the final timing screens with Valtteri Bottas third and two tenths down on his teammate’s best time in the afternoon stanza.

Kimi Raikkonen enjoyed a good day, topping his teammate Sebastian Vettel in both sessions. In FP2 the Finn was fourth fastest overall, a quarter of a second up on his German teammate in fifth – the top five spread by just half a second.

The jury is out deliberating if Ferrari kept their powder dry during this first day – as they did last year – and will unleash the real beast in qualifying. Whatever the case they do not seem too far off the pace. The next 24 hours should reeveal what they really have in their armoury.

Notably, Hamilton was also fastest during race simulation runs, but again it was close, on average his advantage a mere tenth of a second quicker per lap than Verstappen. The Dutchman’s body language and big grin after at the end of play was a telling sign from 20-year-old who tends to wear his heart on his sleeve.

On these runs, Raikkonen was almost matching Verstappen’s lap times but last year’s Melbourne winner Vettel appeared to be struggling relative to his teammate in the other Ferrari.

Showing impressive pace all day was Romain Grosjean in the Haas, after ending best of the rest (behind the top three teams) in FP1, he went one better in FP2 this time to finish sixth-fastest, with teammate Kevin Magnuseen ninth.

Daniel Ricciardo’s hot lap run was interrupted by a red flag stint which was sure to see him go quicker than he did. In the end, he was seventh on the timing sheets andthree-quarterss of a second down on teammate Verstappen in the sister Red Bull.

Both McLaren’s ended their first day with Renault power in the top ten, with Fernando Alonso in eighth and Stoffel Vandoorne tenth, albeit over 1.2 seconds down on the benchmark time, the Belgian also had his qualy simualtion spoilt by the red flag.

Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne – Free Practice 2 Best Lap Times

144Lewis HamiltonMERCEDES1:23.931 35
233Max VerstappenRED BULL RACING TAG HEUER1:24.058+0.127s34
377Valtteri BottasMERCEDES1:24.159+0.228s34
47Kimi RäikkönenFERRARI1:24.214+0.283s39
55Sebastian VettelFERRARI1:24.451+0.520s38
68Romain GrosjeanHAAS FERRARI1:24.648+0.717s34
73Daniel RicciardoRED BULL RACING TAG HEUER1:24.721+0.790s28
814Fernando AlonsoMCLAREN RENAULT1:25.200+1.269s28
920Kevin MagnussenHAAS FERRARI1:25.246+1.315s30
102Stoffel VandoorneMCLAREN RENAULT1:25.285+1.354s34
1155Carlos SainzRENAULT1:25.390+1.459s35
1211Sergio PerezFORCE INDIA MERCEDES1:25.413+1.482s30
1327Nico HulkenbergRENAULT1:25.463+1.532s35
1418Lance StrollWILLIAMS MERCEDES1:25.543+1.612s32
1531Esteban OconFORCE INDIA MERCEDES1:25.888+1.957s33
1628Brendon HartleySCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA1:25.925+1.994s41
1710Pierre GaslySCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA1:25.945+2.014s39
1835Sergey SirotkinWILLIAMS MERCEDES1:25.974+2.043s37
199Marcus EricssonSAUBER FERRARI1:26.814+2.883s31
2016Charles LeclercSAUBER FERRARI1:26.815+2.884s35