Australian GP Free Practice: Hamilton on top as Ferrari struggles

Lewis Hamilton is gunning for a third world crown in a row, and sixth overall, to close in on Michael Schumacher's all-time record of seven.

Lewis Hamilton finished nearly a second adrift of arch-rival Sebastian Vettel.   -  Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton made a mockery of his claim that Ferrari would be half-a-second quicker at the Australian Grand Prix by easily clocking the fastest times in the season's opening practice runs Friday.

The Briton led a Mercedes one-two in the second session as he powered round Melbourne's Albert Park circuit under clear skies with a best of one minute 22.600 seconds.

It bettered his pace-setting 1:23.599 in the opening practice as he kick-started his bid for a sixth world title.

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Valtteri Bottas was second (1:22.648) with Red Bull's Max Verstappen third (1:23.400), marginally ahead of impressive new teammate Pierre Gasly, who was promoted this year from Toro Rosso.

Sebastian Vettel, who has won in Melbourne for the past two years, could only manage fifth, nearly a second adrift of arch-rival Hamilton, while Ferrari partner Charles Leclerc struggled to ninth, straddling the kerb and spinning as he pushed hard late in the day.

The man Leclerc replaced, Finnish former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, pushed his Alfa Romeo — formerly Sauber -— into sixth.

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The Renaults of Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo were sixth and seventh respectively.

“I have a positive buzz from driving the car today -- this is what I love doing. The car feels like it's in a similar place to where it was in Barcelona, which is positive coming to a different track,” said Hamilton.

“We got through our programme really well, there were no issues on track. There's plenty of stuff that we can improve on, but this was not a bad start.”

Hamilton is gunning for a third world crown in a row to close in on Michael Schumacher's all-time record of seven.

Much had been made of his insistence after pre-season testing in Barcelona that Ferrari was much faster, but he quickly put that fallacy to bed as he angles for an 84th pole position.

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Bottas said the car felt better than during testing. “We didn't bring a lot of new parts to the car, but we were able to optimise the package that we have,” he said.

“We have an idea of how much we can improve for qualifying, but we have no idea how much performance the other teams can still bring.”

— A bit wobbly —

There was some speculation in the paddock that Ferrari may have been sandbagging, or deliberately holding back ahead of qualifying on Saturday.

Vettel slid onto the grass at turn one early in the afternoon run. “Check the car in turns one and four. Feels quite odd... Seems to be something wrong. Box,” he said on the team radio. He recovered but later told the team his car was “still a bit wobbly”.

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The German said afterwards it had been “a tricky day”. “I think for us we are not yet where we would like to be, not in terms of lap times but in terms of car feel and handling,” he added.

“We didn't really get into the groove and the rhythm and I hope tomorrow is a better day.”

Toro Rosso new boy Alexander Albon had a troubled introduction to Formula One, losing his front wing in a crash at turn two in the first practice. He slid onto the gravel again in session two and skidded onto the grass.

It was also a frustrating day for Poland's Robert Kubica, in his first Formula One drive since his right arm was partially severed in a horror rallying accident eight years ago.

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His best time of 1:26.655 for Williams was slowest on a day marred by the sudden death on Thursday of long-serving and well-respected Formula One race director Charlie Whiting.

FIA chief Jean Todt held a minute's silence to mark his passing in a press conference, with deputy race director Michael Masi fulfilling Whiting's duties in Melbourne.

 

Free Practice times in Melbourne:

FP1

1. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes 1:23.599

2. Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari 1:23.637

3. Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari 1:23.673

4. Max Verstappen (NED) Red Bull 1:23.792

5. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Mercedes 1:23.866

6. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Alfa Romeo Racing 1:24.816

7. Daniil Kvyat (RUS) Toro Rosso 1:24.832

8. Pierre Gasly (FRA) Red Bull 1:24.932

9. Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Haas 1:24.934

10. Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Renault 1:25.015

11. Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA) Alfa Romeo Racing 1:25.166

12. Romain Grosjean (FRA) Haas 1:25.224

13. Alexander Albon (THA) Toro Rosso 1:25.230

14. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) McLaren 1:25.285

15. Lance Stroll (CAN) Racing Point 1:25.288

16. Sergio Perez (MEX) Racing Point 1:25.498

17. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Renault 1:25.634

18. Lando Norris (GBR) McLaren 1:25.966

19. Robert Kubica (POL) Williams 1:27.914

20. George Russell (GBR) Williams 1:28.740

FP2

1. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes 1:22.600

2. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Mercedes 1:22.648

3. Max Verstappen (NED) Red Bull 1:23.400

4. Pierre Gasly (FRA) Red Bull 1:23.442

5. Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari 1:23.473

6. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Alfa Romeo Racing 1:23.572

7. Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Renault 1:23.574

8. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Renault 1:23.644

9. Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari 1:23.754

10. Romain Grosjean (FRA) Haas 1:23.814

11. Daniil Kvyat (RUS) Toro Rosso 1:23.933

12. Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Haas 1:23.988

13. Lance Stroll (CAN) Racing Point 1:24.011

14. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) McLaren 1:24.133

15. Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA) Alfa Romeo 1:24.293

16. Sergio Perez (MEX) Racing Point 1:24.401

17. Alexander Albon (THA) Toro Rosso 1:24.675

18. Lando Norris (GBR) McLaren 1:24.733

19. George Russell (GBR) Williams 1:26.453

20. Robert Kubica (POL) Williams 1:26.655

 

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