After a long wait thanks to the most hyped-up off-season in modern Formula One history, the stars and their cars hit the track for the first time this season at Albert Park.
Melbourne turned on the good weather for the day where fans were treated to some of the quickest lap times and corner speeds ever seen around the lake. While Mercedes fired the first shots, their bullets didn’t shoot as far ahead as had been feared.
Kicking off as midday rolled around, the first official installation laps of the year were completed by a majority of the field. Though the helmets are often a blur, the big cheers came up when Hamilton, Alonso and Australia’s hope Ricciardo left the pits.
It didn’t take long for three-time champion Hamilton to go to the top of the timesheets, posting a solid 1:25.535 tour of the circuit. Bottas, the new Flying Finn and the man who has to fill the shoes of an absent world champion, was out to prove he wouldn’t be a pushover number two driver, briefly going quicker than Hamilton with a 1:24.803.
Despite being on the quickest tyre, his time at the top didn’t last long as his team-mate followed suit, using the super sticky ultra soft Pirelli rubber to lap Albert Park in 1:24.220. To put it in to perspective, Michael Schumacher’s 2004 lap record was a 1:24.125, back when the V10 engines and a fierce tyre battle were the causes behind the lap times which will only now be eclipsed.
In a story which seems all too familiar, Ricciardo was the best of the rest, setting his fastest time of 1:24.886 on the super soft tyres. The Red Bull still looks to have speed issues down the straight but arguably is running more ride height rake than seen in previous seasons. Their strong aero package elevated Verstappen to fourth in the session with a 1:25.246.
With Mercedes and Red Bull setting the precedent, the little red cars weren’t too happy to be separated from each other, Raikkonen completing the session in fifth with Vettel sixth. Both Ferrari drivers were a little more than a second off Hamilton’s pace though only split by under a tenth of a second.
Massa, Grosjean, Hulkenburg and Perez completed the top half of the field while Palmer and Melbourne debutante Vandoorne had limited running in the opening session.
The late afternoon session was arguably one of the more crucial times for the teams given practice started at the same time as qualifying and the race will be occurring over the next two days.
Race runs were the flavour of the day with many drivers clocking up a considerable number of laps, presumably on high levels of fuel and in close quarters to each other. Russian Kvyat was the driver who completed the most tours of the track with 39 in the hour and a half long session.
Only 25 minutes in, the first red flag, and crash of the season, was caused after Palmer had a spin coming around the final corner. Sliding backwards into the wall, he bounced on to the track and scattered debris across the road. Four laps was less than he and Renault would have hoped for.
Shortly after the session resumed, Massa, in his “return” to Formula One after pseudo-retiring, had a suspected gearbox failure, coming to a halt on the back side of the circuit. He had completed one and a half times more laps than Palmer’s Renault; six.
Hamilton turned up the wick in the Mercedes, eclipsing his time earlier in the day by 0.6 seconds with a 1:23.620. The unofficial lap record stands at a 1:23.529, set by Vettel in 2011 aboard the RB7 when blown diffusers were all the rage. For Hamilton to only be slightly down on Vettel’s time despite the lack of exhaust/aero aids makes the effort all the more commendable.
Speaking of the German champion, he wrestled his Ferrari in to position two, albeit half a second down on Hamilton, his 1:24.167 still faster than the quickest lap earlier in the day. Only a thousandth behind him was Bottas, having a solid first day on the job with the reigning constructor’s champions.
Raikkonen again kept himself amongst the top runners, his best lap slightly under a second down on Hamilton’s and good enough for fourth. Ricciardo was only just over a second off Hamilton and again ahead of his team mate, though just by one position despite completing 19 more laps.
Sainz, Grosjean, Hulkenburg and Kvyat rounded out the top ten, the last of the bunch running 1.8 seconds slower than Hamilton. Practice tomorrow runs for an hour, beginning at 2pm local time. The first qualifying session for the year turns green at 5pm local time.
Image via Mercedes AMG F1 Petronas F1 Team
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