Hamilton makes a statement as F1 gets back on track in Austria

Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas topped the charts during both FP1 and FP2 in Austria as Formula 1 made a return to the track on Friday.

While Hamilton has taken every pole at Albert Park since 2014, he has won just once in that time, and it was teammate Valtteri Bottas who sizzled at pre-season testing.

Lewis Hamilton (R) led the way in a Mercedes one-two during both the free practices of the Austrian GP on Friday.   -  AFP

Formula One got back on track in changed circumstances but familiar fashion at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix on Friday, with Mercedes driver and six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton picking up from where he left off last year.

The Briton and teammate Valtteri Bottas responded to the 'new normal' resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic by finishing one-two in both the free practice sessions on the sport's latest start to a campaign.

Hamilton, wearing a 'Black Lives Matter' helmet in a black Mercedes with 'End Racism' written on it, set a best time of one minute, 04.304 seconds after also going fastest in opening practice with a time of 1:04.816.

Bottas was 0.356s adrift in the morning but cut the gap to 0.197s in the afternoon.

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Racing Point, whose Mercedes-powered RP20 has been dubbed the 'Pink Mercedes' because of its striking similarity to Hamilton's title-winning 2019 car, was third fastest with Mexican Sergio Perez.

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, starting his last season in the Italian team's red car, was fourth fastest on his 33rd birthday with Australian Daniel Ricciardo at fifth for Renault and McLaren's Lando Norris at sixth.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen, winner of the last two races at his team's home track, was third in the first session but spun twice and finished up eighth after lunch.

Sunday's race, the first of two in Austria on successive weekends, became the opener after the novel coronavirus outbreak laid waste to the calendar and forced the cancellation of the scheduled Australian opener on March 15 before a wheel had turned.

Friday marked the first time all the drivers had been on track together since the end of pre-season testing in Barcelona last February.

The last time any of them raced was in Abu Dhabi in December last year, when Hamilton won from pole position and set the fastest lap.

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“MotorSport is back!,” said International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Jean Todt on Twitter, moments after the cars left the Spielberg pitlane.

“It's good to hear the engines and see cars again and almost get back to some phase of normality,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told Sky F1 television.

“We all look like we're in some kind of hospital programme, with all the face masks and the PPE (personal protective equipment)... but other than that working practices are very much as normal.”

The race is being run under strict health and safety conditions, with teams operating in 'bubbles' and isolated from each other, with drivers wearing face masks even when talking to the media by video link. The race will be run completely without spectators for the first time in Formula One history.

“We are all used to a lot of fans in the campsites, grandstands... but the most important thing is we are finally back on track and can put up a good show,” said McLaren principal Andreas Seidl on a Zoom call.

McLaren triggered the abandonment of the Australian race in Melbourne after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Seidl said the entire team had a clean bill of health after the latest round of tests.

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