Lewis Hamilton heads Australian GP practice by half-a-second over Sebastian Vettel as Mercedes lay down a marker

David Tremayne
Lewis Hamilton was fastest in the first two practice sessions of the year in Melbourne: Getty

Taken at face value, if you had to summarise the first day of Formula One1’s brave new world based on practice times at the Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park yesterday, the expression you might be tempted to use would be: situation normal.

Lewis Hamilton was fastest for Mercedes, and his closest opposition was half a second behind. So what’s new? What happened to the expected speed from Ferrari, who had dominated much of pre-season testing?

Sebastian Vettel, who led yesterday’s pursuit, said his Ferrari lacked handling balance, hence the 0.547s gap between his red car and Hamilton’s silver arrow.

"The balance wasn't yet where I want it to be, so I think we can still do a decent step forward," the German said. “We had some small issues that caught me out. The car still doesn't yet feel as good as it should, and as it can."

Of course, the cynics suggested immediately that the Scuderia’s testing form had been an illusion, as it had proved to be in previous years, but Vettel was unmoved. "People make up their own opinion, no matter what you tell them," he added. "We can still improve, and we will."

Hamilton, meanwhile, said he was “super-happy” to be back in the cockpit.

“It was 99 per cent perfect,” he said of his day, in which he was fastest in both sessions. “After struggling with some issues in testing in Barcelona, we didn't know if we'd have the same thing here. What's really encouraging is that we've arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be. 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.

“Coming into today, we really didn't know where we'd be. We knew from FP1 that the Ferraris weren't at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick. We'll see tomorrow how it really stands. I feel very much at home in Melbourne. There's always a great buzz here and a lot of support. I'm just really happy to see everyone and receive their positive energy. I'll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Hamilton was half-a-second faster than his nearest challenger in Vettel (Getty)

What could be said with certainty was that Jolyon Palmer earned the dubious distinction of being the first man to crash a 2017 car at a race event. And the 26 year-old Englishman admitted the incident in which he spun his Renault into the wall in the final corner yesterday afternoon came as a complete surprise.

"I just turned it in, had a bit of understeer and the car really let go on the rear,” he said. "It caught me massively by surprise. I was on a tidy lap and attacking the last corner, didn't think too much of it, and the rear just went. I had no chance. It's the first time I've had that sort of problem in this car. It just let go."

Vettel appeared puzzled by the gap to the lead Mercedes (Getty)

He was unhurt, but the incident added to problems he’d suffered in the morning with the gearbox, to put him on his back foot.

The real work gets done for all of the teams on Saturday, with qualifying in the afternoon, when everyone runs flat-out and truths are revealed. It’s still too close to call, but once the grid has been formed the true pecking order – here, at least – will be clearer. Which isn’t to say it might not change in upcoming races as teams bring further upgrades.

Final Times after Second Practice:

1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1min 23.620secs

2 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari 1:24.167

3 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes GP 1:24.176

4 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:24.525

5 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull 1:24.650

6 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull 1:25.013

7 Carlos Sainz (Spa) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:25.084

8 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas F1 1:25.436

9 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Renault 1:25.478

10 Daniil Kvyat (Rus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:25.493

11 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India 1:25.591

12 Fernando Alonso (Spa) McLaren 1:26.000

13 Esteban Ocon (Fra) Force India 1:26.145

14 Felipe Massa (Bra) Williams 1:26.331

15 Marcus Ericsson (Swe) Sauber-Ferrari 1:26.498

16 Lance Stroll (Can) Williams 1:26.525

17 Stoffel Vandoorne (Bel) McLaren 1:26.608

18 Pascal Wehrlein (Ger) Sauber-Ferrari 1:26.919

19 Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas F1 1:27.279

20 Jolyon Palmer (Gbr) Renault 1:27.549

PA

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