Mercedes set the pace at pre-race practice with both of its cars clocking the fastest times on Friday ahead of the first Formula One Grand Prix of the season in Australia.
Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton was the fastest driver at the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit in Albert Park during the two earliest practice sessions, stopping the clock 0.036 of a second ahead of Ferrari’s second-placed Sebastian Vettel in Free Practice 1.
During Free Practice 2, Hamilton was even quicker and edged Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas by 0.048 as the Silver Arrows cars came in one-two by showing some of their true potential ahead of Sunday's race, although the British driver tried to downplay any possible advantage over arch-rival Ferrari.
“I don't think we've seen all of the cards from any team yet,” Hamilton said. “We know how much we can improve for the qualifying and for the race," he added, acknowledging his team still did not know how fast Ferrari is.
"You know Ferrari, they were very strong in winter testing. I don't think their speed has somehow disappeared, so for sure they were testing something different and we’ll find out tomorrow.”
Ferrari's Vettel was only able to come in fifth-place on overall pace, and his teammate Charles Leclerc could only manage ninth-place.
While Mercedes looked to be dominant, Red Bull's two cars proved to be faster than the Ferraris, with Max Verstappen edging his new teammate Pierre Gasly to claim third and fourth places behind the Silver Arrows.
A strong wind played its part in the practice sessions, causing some problems on Turn One and also on the penultimate Turn 15 of the relatively narrow track at Melbourne.
This made the battle for midfield positions particularly intense and also provided Leclerc, who was driving his Ferrari under competitive conditions for the first time, with his first complicated moment at the wheel of a blood-red prancing horse car.
Although it was not clear if the wind was involved, his car spun dramatically as he applied power on the exit of Turn 4, causing the Monaco-born driver to show his skill as he succeeded in keeping the Ferrari from slamming into the crash barriers.
Leclerc was not the only driver to suffer a mishap, as the wind made things difficult for Kimi Raikkonen, Antonio Giovinazzi and Alexander Albon who all suffered accidents that caused the red flag to be brought out.
“It was a tricky day for us," acknowledged Vettel. "It was probably a tricky day for everyone. I think for us we’re not yet where we want to be. Not so much in terms of lap time but more in terms of car feel and handling."
Mercedes seemed to be resistant to these problems, however.
“I really have a positive buzz from driving the car today,” Hamilton said. “These new cars, the flow is unbelievable. It’s how Formula One cars are supposed to be when they're wide and they’re big,” he said in a reference to the new regulations governing F1 this season.
“That's how it's supposed to be, that's what we get paid the big bucks to do," Hamilton added, "to pull out those milliseconds to try and make the difference so I'm super stoked and excited for what’s to come.”
Vettel said that he was not surprised by his team's lack of initial pace, despite having been very quick in pre-season testing in Barcelona earlier in the year.
“I can feel I have the car under me I had in testing, but it doesn’t do the same things, it’s not doing exactly what I like here and there and that’s why I’m lacking confidence," Vettel said.
Practice 2 times:
.1. Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) 1:22.600
.2. Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Mercedes) 1:22.648
.3. Max Verstappen (HOL/Red Bull Honda) 1:23.400
.4. Pierre Gasly (FRA/Red Bull Honda) 1:23.442
.5. Sebastian Vettel (ALE/Ferrari) 1:23.473
.6. Kimi Räikkönen (FIN/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1:23.572
.7. Nico Hülkenberg (ALE/Renault) 1:23.574
.8. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/Renault) 1:23.644
.9. Charles Leclerc (MON/Ferrari) 1:23.754
10. Romain Grosjean (FRA/Haas-Ferrari) 1:23.814
11. Daniil Kvyat (RUS/Toro Rosso-Honda) 1:23.933
12. Kevin Magnussen (DIN/Haas-Ferrari) 1:23.988
13. Lance Stroll (CAN/Racing Point-Mercedes) 1:24.011
14. Carlos Sainz (ESP/McLaren-Renault) 1:24.133
15. Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1:24.293
16. Sergio Pérez (MEX/Racing Point-Mercedes) 1:24.401
17. Alexander Albon (THA/Toro Rosso-Honda) 1:24.675
18. Lando Norris (GBR/McLaren-Renault) 1:24.733
19. George Rusell (GBR/Williams-Mercedes) 1:26.453
20. Robert Kubica (POL/Williams-Mercedes) 1:26.655