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Australian GP: Mercedes takes the lead at first practice sessions

2018-03-23 09:43

Image: AP / Joshua Paul

Melbourne, Australia — Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton sent an early signal that he could again be the driver to beat in Formula 1 this season, setting the swiftest time in the Friday's practice sessions at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

After earlier playing down his team's chances against Ferrari and Red Bull, Hamilton set a one-lap time of 1min 23.931 seconds on a bright, clear afternoon at the 5.303km Albert Park circuit, and showed superior long-run pace with the lowest average lap time on ultrasoft tyres, as well.

Small gap

The gap between Hamilton and Red Bull's Max Verstappen was relatively small, however, with the 20-year-old Dutch driver turning in a fastest lap time of 1min24.058, just over 0.1 behind Hamilton.

"It's good to get started again," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. "We've had a pretty good test, much better than last year. But you're never very sure where that will end up in the first race."

Hamilton's team mate Valtteri Bottas, who lost practice time after going off the track into the gravel in Friday's second session, was 0.1 second behind Verstappen in third place, followed by the Ferrari cars of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel in fourth and fifth, respectively.

READ: Mercedes sets early pace at 2018 Australian GP practice

"Obviously, difficult to read too much into times, but you start to get a bit of an idea and you can see Mercedes really taking off where they left off (last year)," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "I'm envisaging a quite tight battle with (Ferrari), but I'm not sure at the moment what the delta is to Toto (Wolff's) cars."

Vettel, who pushed Hamilton hard last season and had spoken of Ferrari's improvement in the off-season, was a surprising 0.5 second behind the defending world champion.

In another big surprise, Romain Grosjean showed good pace in his Haas car, setting a fastest time of 1:24.648, just ahead of Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo.

McLaren also rebounded from a dismal start to the day to see its drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, post the eighth- and 10th-fastest times, respectively. Both drivers were stuck in the garage for much of the first session with exhaust issues in their cars.

The drivers in the middle of the pack after Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari were as tightly grouped as expected, with less than a second separating Alonso in eighth with Sergey Sirotkin of Williams in 18th.

The closeness of Verstappen to Hamilton, as well as the cluster of times in the middle of the field, sets up the prospect of an exciting qualifying session on Saturday. Another factor may be the weather as showers are forecast for both Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race.

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