Lewis Hamilton topped both practice sessions for the opening grand prix of the 2017 Formula One season in Australia. The British driver was fastest in the morning and the second session on Thursday, with his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas second in the morning and third in the afternoon. Hamilton was a full half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel who was second in free practice two. It is an early sign that the team have brought another superlative package to the new regulations that have changed the formula this season, having dominated the sport, winning the drivers’ and constructors championships for the past three seasons.
Hamilton, a three-time world champion is attempting to become the first British driver to win a fourth title and having been strong in testing has shown an early indicator that he has been given the necessary tools to be at the front from the off. The new regulations categorically delivered the quicker speeds that had been one of their purposes with Hamilton’s lap in the first session of 1m.24.220, set on the ultra-soft tyres, a full five and half seconds faster than the time he set during the same run last year. It was also five-tenths clear of his team-mate and six-tenths up on the nearest Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo who was third but set his time on the supersoft rubber and was in front of his team-mate Max Verstappen.
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Ferrari had been quickest in testing, however they have been playing down their chances and in the morning both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were just over a second back from Hamilton’s time but using the harder compound of tyre. Vettel improved in the second session but still could not match the Mercedes even when using the ultrasoft, while Raikkonen also improved to fourth. The team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, said his team had been sticking to their programme and focusing on the balance of their car through the day. Ricciardo did not gain from running the softer tyre and concluded the afternoon in fifth, with Verstappen in sixth.
Hamilton, however, will take huge confidence going into tomorrow’s qualifying. It was hoped the new regulations for 2017 would narrow the advantage Mercedes held but on this admittedly very early form, they are starting just where they left off last season. Not only was the British driver nailing perfect, quick sectors on the softest rubber but showing ominous pace on his long runs as well. “He’s in a league of his own at the moment,” said the Mercedes director of motorsport, Toto Wolff. His time of 1m23.620s, was less than one tenth slower than Vettel’s when he posted the fastest lap set in Melbourne for pole in 2011.
“The car is exactly where it should be,” said Hamilton. “It’s feeling great out there and the guys have done a fantastic job. We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tyres performed really well today too.”
Britain’s Jolyon Palmer had an inauspicious start to his second season in F1 when he lost the rear of his Renault on the entry to the final corner and put it in the wall, during free practice two ending his session.
McLaren’s engine struggles that so marred their testing had not greatly improved with the new season just beginning. The cars did run but were off the pace, with Fernando Alonso’s 14th their best in the first session and although he improved to 12th in the second, was still 2.3 seconds off the pace. His team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne was 20th and 17th respectively.
Williams, Haas and Renault led the midfield in the first session, with Toro Rosso, Haas and Renault chasing the big three teams in the second.