Five-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton picked up where he left off last season and was joined by teammate Valtteri Bottas as the Mercedes drivers posted the top times in practice Friday at the Australian Grand Prix.
Ferrari appeared to have the faster cars in winter testing but it was Hamilton who had the quickest lap of 1:22.600 in the first two official practice sessions at the Formula One season-opening race at the Albert Park circuit.
The new cars, which were expected to be slower than last year’s cars thanks to aero rule tweaks supposed to make for closer racing, while the jury is out of indeed this will be the case it is clear the new cars are faster by over 1.3 seconds. Hamilton’s best time last year around Albert Park was 1:23.931.
Hamilton was fastest in the opening practice, holding off Ferrari pair Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, and went even quicker in the afternoon.
Ferrari was off the pace the second time around, with two-time defending Australian GP champion Vettel in fifth spot and Leclerc sliding backwards into the track-side grass after losing control with only minutes remaining and recording the ninth-fastest lap.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen improved from fourth-quickest to third in the second session, 0.08 behind, and his new teammate Pierre Gasly was fourth.
The 39-year-old Kimi Raikkonen was sixth in his first start since leaving Ferrari for Alfa Romeo Racing, and the Renault pair of Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo were next.
In the first session, the front four were all within two-tenths of a second after Hamilton posted the quickest lap of 1: 23.599, but the spread was greater in the afternoon.
Hamilton and Vettel finished first and second in the drivers’ championship last season, with Hamilton dominating the second half of the season and finishing with 11 victories from 21 GP events. For Hamilton, at least, it appears to be business as usual.
The first practice was held in cool, clear conditions with the temperature reaching 21 Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) and it was only marginally warner for the second practice. The forecast is for warmer conditions for Saturday’s qualifying and Sunday’s race.
While the Silver Arrows topping the timing screens suggests the same script of the past five years – the monotony of Mercedes all over again – but Sky F1 pundit Martin Brundle is not jumping to conclusions.
He summed up what he saw on the day, “We have to stay calm. What it does tell us is that Mercedes have honed in on their car. But the Ferrari and Red Bull look great on track. So any headlines other than ‘Mercedes are right in the hunt’ will be misleading.”
Meanwhile, in between the practice sessions, FIA President Jean Todt and Formula 1 chairman Chase Carey attended a news conference which started with a minute of silence in memory of F1 race director Charlie Whiting, who died in Melbourne early Thursday from a pulmonary embolism.
It was the first time Todt and Carey, who entered the sport in 2017, had attended the same news conference at a Grand Prix. Todt was emotional as he asked people to stand for the minute of silence.
The death of the popular and widely-acclaimed F1 veteran shocked drivers and the entire racing community. F1’s managing director for motorsport Ross Brawn and Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto were among friends and colleagues who wore black armbands as a mark of respect for Whiting.
The sport’s governing body said Michael Masi would fill the roles of race director, safety delegate and permanent starter for this Australian Grand Prix.