Mercedes backed up their strong pace throughout testing by recording a one-two in Friday practice for the first Grand Prix of the Formula One Season in Melbourne.
After the sweeping engine changes introduced by the sport, Mercedes’ package has looked to have a clear advantage throughout the winter. That translated to Melbourne where Lewis Hamilton set the fastest lap on Friday, despite having missed the entirety of the first session after an oil-pressure sensor was erroneously triggered. Hamilton’s teammate Nico Rosberg trailed the former world champion by 0.157 seconds. With Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso 0.35secs back, Mercedes were perhaps not as dominant as had been predicted. And Hamilton is certainly taking nothing for granted.
“It really was a day of two halves today,” he said, according to Formula One’s official website. “While it was disappointing to not get any track time this morning, these little hiccups are going to happen with the new cars and we'll have to get used to that. It felt like I was on the back foot from there but then we got up to pace quite quickly in P2 and found the balance relatively fast. I feel quite comfortable in the car so overall it's a positive start but we need to look at the data now and understand where we are.”
Along with Mercedes’ supreme pace, the biggest story of winter testing has been the struggles of Red Bull. A multitude of problems has left the winners of the constructors’ championship for the past four years a long way behind their rivals in terms of preparation. Yet there were more encouraging signs in Australia with world champion Sebastian Vettel coming in fourth and his new teammate Daniel Ricciardo two spots further back. Vettel admitted that it was good just to have some prolonged time out on the track.
“In a way it’s a relief today, the fact that we were running, we didn’t have any problems, the balance was good and the performance looked alright,” he explained. “In the end Friday times are not worth a lot, but it’s better to be close to the top rather than somewhere towards the back, so I’m very happy with that. We will do what we can to prepare for tomorrow and Sunday, but let’s see where we are then -- the most important thing is that we finish.”
Vettel’s relationship with Ricciardo is unlikely to arouse the fascination of Ferrari’s new lineup which sees Alonso been joined by another former champion, Kimi Raikkonen. Things did not get off to the best of starts for the Finn, who was 0.7secs slower than his teammate.
Elsewhere there were further signs that McLaren are set for a much improved season. Jenson Button was fifth in the afternoon with his new teammate, exciting young Dane Kevin Magnussen, in ninth. Another team looking poised for better things on the evidence of testing are Williams. Some have even suggested that they could be the main challenger to Mercedes. After running well in the morning, Williams were less impressive later in the day with Valtteri Bottas coming in eighth and former Ferrari man Felipe Massa in 12th. A team heading in the other direction is Lotus. Even getting out of Q1 looks to be a struggle after Romain Grosjean was 18th and Pastor Maldonado failed to set a time.
Where to watch: Qualifying for the Formula One Australian Grand Pix in Melbourne will get underway at 2 a.m. ET on Saturday. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.