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

1 44 Lewis Hamilton MERCEDES 1:23.931   35
2 33 Max Verstappen RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER 1:24.058 +0.127s 34
3 77 Valtteri Bottas MERCEDES 1:24.159 +0.228s 34
4 7 Kimi Räikkönen FERRARI 1:24.214 +0.283s 39
5 5 Sebastian Vettel FERRARI 1:24.451 +0.520s 38
6 8 Romain Grosjean HAAS FERRARI 1:24.648 +0.717s 34
7 3 Daniel Ricciardo RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER 1:24.721 +0.790s 28
8 14 Fernando Alonso MCLAREN RENAULT 1:25.200 +1.269s 28
9 20 Kevin Magnussen HAAS FERRARI 1:25.246 +1.315s 30
10 2 Stoffel Vandoorne MCLAREN RENAULT 1:25.285 +1.354s 34
11 55 Carlos Sainz RENAULT 1:25.390 +1.459s 35
12 11 Sergio Perez FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 1:25.413 +1.482s 30
13 27 Nico Hulkenberg RENAULT 1:25.463 +1.532s 35
14 18 Lance Stroll WILLIAMS MERCEDES 1:25.543 +1.612s 32
15 31 Esteban Ocon FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 1:25.888 +1.957s 33
16 28 Brendon Hartley SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 1:25.925 +1.994s 41
17 10 Pierre Gasly SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 1:25.945 +2.014s 39
18 35 Sergey Sirotkin WILLIAMS MERCEDES 1:25.974 +2.043s 37
19 9 Marcus Ericsson SAUBER FERRARI 1:26.814 +2.883s 31
20 16 Charles Leclerc SAUBER FERRARI 1:26.815 +2.884s 35