MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Five-times champion Lewis Hamilton dominated Friday practice at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, topping the timesheets for Mercedes in both sessions, as his chief rival Sebastian Vettel was left underwhelmed by Ferrari’s performance.
After pipping Vettel with a lap of one minute 23.599 seconds in the first practice, Hamilton shaved almost a second off that in FP2, his quickest lap clocked at 1:22.600.
The Briton edged team mate Valtteri Bottas by 0.048 seconds but had a yawning 0.800 seconds gap to the Red Bull of third fastest Max Verstappen, with Vettel further adrift with the fifth quickest time.
“I have a positive buzz from driving the car today,” said an upbeat Hamilton.
“The car feels like it’s in a similar place to where it was in Barcelona (testing), which is positive coming to a different track. We got through our programme really well, there were no issues on track.”
Vettel was not far off the pace of the Red Bulls in the second session but he slid through the grass and complained of handling problems on the team radio.
His young new team mate Charles Leclerc also took a spin into the grass in the dying minutes and managed only the ninth fastest lap.
With Ferrari slightly quicker than Mercedes in winter testing, pundits were quick to question whether the ‘Scuderia’ were ‘sandbagging’ — keeping their true pace in reserve ahead of Saturday’s qualifying.
But four-times champion Vettel painted a gloomier picture, saying his car was not behaving like it had during testing.
“It was a tricky day for us. Probably it was a tricky day for everyone,” he said.
“We are not yet where we would like to be, not in terms of lap time but more in terms of car feel and handling. We didn’t really get into the groove and the rhythm.”
While well off Mercedes’ pace, Verstappen posted his fastest lap at the start of a long run, meaning he likely had more fuel on board and would be quicker in qualifying conditions.
With neither he nor his new team mate Pierre Gasly, fourth quickest in FP2, suffering major performance or reliability problems, Red Bull may feel satisfied with the debut of their Honda partnership.
It was also an encouraging session for Kimi Raikkonen and Alfa Romeo, the team formerly known as Sauber.
The Finnish former world champion, who switched from Ferrari, was sixth fastest in the second practice, giving the rebooted outfit hope of being “the best of the rest”.
It looked like being a tight midfield battle, however, with both Renaults nipping at Raikkonen’s heels. Nico Hulkenberg and home hope Daniel Ricciardo, who switched from Red Bull, were seventh and eighth fastest respectively in FP2.
British-born Thai debutant Alexander Albon had a tough day, crashing his Toro Rosso to lose his front wing and cause a brief halt in the first session. He later spun off track several times in the second.
Williams appear set for another season of toil as their Polish driver Robert Kubica, returning to Formula One after an absence of more than eight years, was 20th in second practice, one place behind rookie team mate George Russell.
Editing by Peter Rutherford/Amlan Chakraborty