Lewis Hamilton has recorded the quickest time for Friday during Melbourne’s two rainy practice sessions.
On what was set to be a critical day of preparation ahead of the introduction of a new qualifying format and new tyre selection regulations, drivers completed scarcely more than 30 laps apiece in the intermittently wet conditions.
Heavy showers lashed the circuit in the morning, meaning early FP1 running was confined to only installation laps, before sunshine allowed drivers to transition from wets to intermediate before sampling Pirelli’s 2016 soft compound tyres.
The usual suspects worked their way to the top of the first free practice sessions, with Lewis Hamilton topping the time sheet ahead of Red Bull Racing duo Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo.
The rain returned to hammer the track in the final few minutes of the session, creating dangerous conditions for drivers still attempting to log laps.
Home favourite Daniel Ricciardo succumbed to the waterlogged tarmac when he beached his car in the gravel and was forced to walk back to his garage.
“The track was wet, dry, slick, greasy, then dry, more wet — it changed a lot,” Ricciardo summarised. “Today was the definition of Melbourne – four seasons in one day, everyone says.
“We struggled to get enough laps to really get a rhythm and see where we are performance-wise.
“I was happy with the few laps I did do, and besides the excursion through the gravel it was looking pretty alright.”
The rain persisted into the start of free practice two, and it was only 20 minutes into the 90-minute session that any cars tentatively left the pits.
Ricciardo had the circuit to himself for the better part of 10 minutes before other teams decided conditions were safe enough to brave — but Nico Rosberg gave the paddock pause for thought when he binned his Mercedes half an hour into the session.
The 2015 championship runner-up lost the rear end of his car in the wet before painfully slowly wiping its nose cone along the barriers.
The damage was severe enough for the car to be stopped on track, where it remained for the rest of the session.
To make matters worse, the nose destroyed in the crash was a new edition, which the team opted not to run in FP1 from fear it would come to harm.
The rest of the field lapped cautiously, and though the rain never returned in anger, persistent precipitation meant no driver switched onto a slick tyre from Pirelli’s green-coloured intermediate rubber, meaning no driver who set a time in the early session was able to improve upon it later in the day.
McLaren had a positive day without incident — Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button set the seventh and eighth-fastest times across 27 and 29 laps each.
The mixed conditions have favoured the team over the past 12 months because a pliable chassis and predictable power unit delivery pay greater dividends than outright power in slippery conditions, but Jenson Button said that he was happy with the day’s results overall.
“We went through lots of system checks, as we always do on a Friday,” he said. “Everything was working all right. I think for everyone it was really tricky because of the wet circuit and big gusts of wind.
“I think we’re in a much better situation that last year. The car is reliable, which is great, so you can actually do the set-up work before the qualifying.
“It’s not going got be two second quicker than the last race last year, so we’re not going to be fighting at the front just yet, but definitely improvements.
“We did all we could today with the conditions. We’re probably in a better position than most tomorrow, but we’ll see what happens.”
Teammate Fernando Alonso agreed, and likewise suggested that there might be more to come from McLaren’s 2016 package.
“Overall happy to be back in the car, especially at another circuit after testing at the same Barcelona all the time,” he said. “Sometimes you get to another circuit and you get a nice surprise or a bad surprise — I think we had a nice surprise, so I’m happy for that.”
Formula One’s 11 teams will have their work cut out for them to prepare for Saturday’s progressive qualifying format, but with rain predicted to interfere with the final practice session on Saturday morning, drivers may have to make do with what little preparation they were able to complete on Friday.
Qualifying for the 2016 Australian Grand Prix starts Saturday at 5PM AEDT.
2016 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX — FRIDAY PRACTICE AGGREGATE TIMES
|2||Daniil Kvyat||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||1:30.146||+0.421||24|
|3||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||1:30.875||+1.150||22|
|4||Nico Hülkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||1:31.325||+1.600||16|
|5||Max Verstappen||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||1:31.720||+1.995||14|
|9||Sergio Perez||Force India-Mercedes||1:33.370||+3.645||14|
|16||Carlos Sainz||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||1:39.694||+9.969||19|