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16 LECLERC Charles (mco), Scuderia Ferrari SF-24, action during the Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix 2024, 3rd round of the 2024 Formula One World Championship from March 22 to 24, 2024 on the Albert Park Circuit, in Melbourne, Australia - Photo Florent Gooden / DPPI

Ferrari reveal pace that could trouble Red Bull in Melbourne

16 LECLERC Charles (mco), Scuderia Ferrari SF-24, action during the Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix 2024, 3rd round of the 2024 Formula One World Championship from March 22 to 24, 2024 on the Albert Park Circuit, in Melbourne, Australia - Photo Florent Gooden / DPPI

Ferrari Formula 1 boss Fred Vasseur had a hunch his team would be front-runners at Albert Park during this weekend’s 2024 Australian Grand Prix and so far he is not wrong, as Charles Leclerc topped the times and an on-the-mend Carlos Sainz ended Friday practice in P3.

Charles Leclerc set the pace on the opening day, the Ferrari driver four-tenths faster than next best Max Verstappen in the Red Bull. And looks most likely to challenge the dominant Red Bulls in Qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday.

Carlos Sainz, still recovering from his appendicitis ordeal, impressed with the third-best time, albeit half a second shy of Leclerc’s best effort. Nevertheless, a fully fit Sainz is likely to be in the mix too.

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Ferrari summed up their Friday in the team report: “Scuderia Ferrari got off to an encouraging start in the first two free practice sessions for the Australian Grand Prix at the Albert Park circuit.

“The most important factor is that Carlos Sainz is fully fit and did brilliantly to return to the cockpit just 14 days after undergoing an appendectomy, which meant he had to sit out the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

“Today, the Spaniard completed 48 laps, almost a race distance, without any physical problems, gradually getting back into the swing of driving the SF-24 in between the walls around the Albert Park track.

“The other positive is that the SF-24 performed well over the single lap, with Charles quickest in the second session when the track was at its best, while Carlos was third, and the car was also competitive in race trim. This gave the drivers positive feedback which will now need to be confirmed in tomorrow and, above all, in Sunday’s race,” the team report added.

Charles: I expect the field to be much tighter

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Reflecting on Friday in Melbourne, Leclerc reported: “It was a solid first day, everything felt good from the start and I was comfortable in the car. The most important thing for us to do will be to go with the track and anticipate what the evolution will be like.”

“We will focus on optimising our balance and try to make a step forward before qualifying. It looks good for now but we have to wait and see how it will look, I expect the field to be much tighter,” added Leclerc, who will make his 126th F1 start on Sunday.

Carlos Sainz was back in the sister car after appendix surgery forced him to sit out Jeddah, to make way for 18-year-old super-sub Oliver Bearman to shine for Ferrari that weekend.

Sainz said of his day at the ‘office’: “It’s been a couple of tough weeks leading to today and to be honest I’m very happy I could complete both sessions feeling reasonably comfortable. I will continue to take it step by step to make sure I come to qualifying and to the race in the best form possible. I’m confident tomorrow [Saturday] will be better and overall.”

Sainz who finished on the podium at the season opener in Bahrain, but had to miss his 185th GP start (in Jeddah) added: “The car seems to be in a good place this weekend. We’ll try to maximise everything from body and machine!” (Additional Quotes from Agnes Carlier in Melbourne)

Big Question: Do Ferrari have the ammo to beat Red Bull at the Australian GP on Sunday?