Lewis Hamilton has started the defence of his title in fine form after topping both practice sessions ahead of this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
In FP1, Hamilton was over half a second faster than his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. While he failed to better that time in FP2, the four-time champion remained ahead of the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
Top three covered by a second
Mercedes have started off this weekend well as they were expected to do so. Hamilton was fastest, but as we saw during winter testing that gap has narrowed with Ferrari and Red Bull. On his qualifying simulation, Hamilton was not far ahead of Verstappen.
Looking at the lap times in FP1 and FP2 the top three teams all had one car within a one-second window or just over. However, we still need to be cautious, as we know Mercedes do not show their full hand on Friday, also we need to bear in mind we do not know what cars modes the cars are in.
Hamilton said, “Really coming here to the first race, you have no idea what it’s going to feel like. You have no idea how you’re going to feel physically and how the tyres are going to react to the circuit, but we started on the right foot today.”
Hamilton, however, was comfortable in the FP1 with around a second, but as normal, that gap came down in FP2. However, you need to be cautious because that was not something which Mercedes could rely on last season.
Sebastian Vettel has said that there is more to come from Ferrari over the rest of the weekend. “Boring work, like every Friday, no different,” he said about the day. “We tried to actually change the balance a bit, because I didn’t feel very comfortable.
“I think we still have quite a lot of performance in hand. I’m not too worried because I know if I get everything right, we should be in better shape. It looks to be close, which is good news, so we should be able to do something tomorrow.”
Haas impress as best of rest
There was a surprise in sixth place in FP2 as Haas’s Romain Grosjean showed the American team had some pace. Going into this weekend there was a feeling that Haas could be in that midfield group this season.
The team had a relatively small gap to their engine supplier Ferrari and Grosjean was ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, yes partly due to the timing of the red flag when Ricciardo was on his fast lap. Grosjean himself knows he would not be ahead of Ricciardo if it were not for the red flag
Ricciardo said, “n testing they had a few people talking. Everyone knows Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari are fast. It is always who is the next team. It seemed to be Haas, today Grosjean was pretty quick, so it seems like they are matching the times they did last month.”
Grosjean acknowledges the Red Bull was set to move ahead of him had Ricciardo been able to complete his lap, but is encouraged by the relatively small gap to Ferrari having been within half a second.
“Well I think Ricciardo didn’t really run the ultrasoft so he’s probably going to get faster,” Grosjean said. “What is very encouraging is that we’re not too far from the Ferraris, which is a good benchmark for us. But again, I think it’s pretty tight behind us as well. So it will be interesting and I think the midfield fight is going to be all year long
Ricciardo awarded grid penalty
Daniel Ricciardo has been awarded a three-place grid penalty for speeding under red flags during second practice for the Australian Grand Prix.
The Red Bull driver failed to stay above to the minimum sector times set by the FIA when damage to the start/finish line triggered a brief red flag during Friday’s afternoon session.
The Australian was on a qualifying simulation at the time, although he believed he had backed off enough data from the car showed he didn’t back off enough.
He will drop three places from where ever he qualifies and has been awarded two penalty points on his super licence. However, by the letter of the law, the stewards said the full penalty could have been worse.
McLaren better but still not good enough
McLaren appeared have made some progress on track, both cars managed some decent mileage on track and showed some pace. Fernando Alonso was in the top ten in both sessions, Stoffel Vandoorne as well in FP2.
However, they remain behind Renault’s benchmark team Red Bull by over a second, if you compare the fastest Red Bull and McLaren times. McLaren we know in Barcelona were struggling with reliability, and again that raised its ugly head again.
In FP1, Alonso suffered d a small issue around the exhaust on his car early on. But Alonso managed to get out onto the track and complete sixteen laps while Vandoorne did fifteen laps. The trend from testing of McLaren completing the least laps continued.
But I think the team are happy with that completing their full programme.
Alonso said “We lost a little bit of time in first practice with some issues but we managed to recover everything in the second session, and now we need to analyse everything to get the best package for tomorrow.”
“The weather is going to affect everyone and we’re used to these changeable conditions here, so hopefully we can maximise every opportunity.”
Vandoorne added “We had a very productive day, so I’m looking forward to putting all the pieces together with the set-up for tomorrow and seeing where we’re at. I think we’re in reasonable shape and the feeling in the car is positive – it feels like we’ve got something to work with.”
Sparks fly between Arrivabene and Horner
Red Bull and Ferrari’s team principals Christian Horner and Maurizio Arrivabene over Ferraris appointment of the outgoing FIA deputy race director Laurent Mekies.
Earlier this month Ferrari announced that Mekies would join the team in September, despite the teams agreeing that all members of the sport’s governing body would have to wait a year before joining teams.
In a press conference between the two and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff the three traded blows
Arrivabene said “First of all there is nothing wrong on that because we were respecting absolutely the Swiss local law where Laurent was hired. Afterwards, we went even further than that because we gave six months of gardening [leave].”
“I think they are comments because gentleman’s agreement under labour law is illegal so I thought they were just comments, no more than that.”
Wolff added “First of all I didn’t see any gentlemen in the room when we discussed it. Second, for me the situation is completely different from Marcin.”
“Both are intelligent engineers, but Marcin was involved in issuing technical directives just a few weeks before he decided to join a team, and had a lot of inside [information].”
But the Red Bull boss wasn’t happy, saying “We discussed the Marcin issue where there was great unrest about a key member of the FIA going to a team, in which case was Renault.
“Renault diluted that by putting him on an extended gardening leave but after that ensued a conversation about it’s unacceptable – every team found it unacceptable.”
Arrivabene pointed out that the minimum term had to be in with national law and the FIA had been given a mandate to look at the legal framework.
Horner then accused Ferrari of pushing for a three-year gardening leave. To which Arrivabene responded with “That was the discussion but then the conclusion was to give mandate to the FIA to come back with a proposal.”
Qualifying is looking as if it is going to fight between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. But as we have said all week we don’t believe we gave seen the full capabilities of Mercedes, we know that they have historically over the past few years have had an advantage with engine modes.
But Ferrari and Renault (who power Red Bull) have caught up, but the question remains how close are they when it matters in qualifying? Look also at what has been a very tight midfield and the latter moments of Q2.
Also looking at the forecast, the weather could play a part as there is a high chance of rain. That means we may not get a true understanding of the pace of the cars, that can also lead to a mixed up grid. You have a higher chance of red flags and mistakes.