Mercedes leads the way in Friday practice

Lewis Hamilton in the pits at the Australian Grand Prix.

Mercedes has started its fourth consecutive championship defence on the right foot, with reigning titleholder Lewis Hamilton topping Friday practice timesheets at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

The sun shone strongly on the Albert Park circuit in a dramatic departure from the snowy conditions during preseason testing, allowing all 10 teams an opportunity to push their 2018 packages ahead of the first race of the season.

Unsurprisingly it was reigning champion Hamilton who looked strong from early in the day. The Briton set the fastest time in both sessions, though his half-second advantage in first practice was slashed to 0.127 seconds by the evening.

Max Verstappen was the second-fastest man for Red Bull Racing, and Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was third, 0.228 seconds behind the leading silver car.

However, Hamilton’s fastest lap comprised an off-the-pace second sector, suggesting there could be around 0.2 seconds more on the table for him come qualifying on Saturday.

Though no prizes would have been awarded for picking Hamilton and Mercedes to top the Friday time sheets, positive was that the top three teams — the German marque, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing — appeared closer in performance than some preseason predictions had forecast.

Kimi Raikkonen, the fastest Ferrari driver of the second session, was only 0.283 seconds off the pace. The Finn led his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, by 0.25 seconds.

Race simulation times also suggested that the three fastest constructors could be closely matched in a dry grand prix, notwithstanding weather forecasts for rain throughout the rest of the weekend, potentially invalidating much of the practice work conducted on Friday.

Haas’s Romain Grosjean set the sixth quickest time — albeit ahead of Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo, whose qualifying simulation lap was aborted by a red flag — only 0.717 seconds slower than Hamilton

It was an impressive performance from the American F1 team and early delivery on preseason testing pace that alluded to a big step forward in performance for the team’s third Formula One season.

McLaren salvaged its day after enduring a frustrating start to its Australian Grand Prix in the first session, when it completed the fewest laps of any team after exhaust problems kept drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne in their garages for 45 minutes.

In the afternoon, however, Alonso and Vandoorne could complete a respectable combined total of 62 laps, with the former securing the eighth-fastest time 1.269 seconds off the pace.

Renault drivers Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg sandwiched Force India’s Sergio Perez in places 10 to 12, the trio separated by less than 0.1 seconds.

Force India’s afternoon in particular was understated. The Silverstone-based team brought a significant upgrade to its car this weekend, and though practice times would appear to have pulled it into line with rival midfield team Renault, they also suggest the team has a significant gap to bridge to defend its fourth place in the constructors standings.

Williams and Toro Rosso followed, and for Toro Rosso the two sessions were positive proof that Honda had made major steps forward on the reliability front over the off-season.

Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly completed a problem-free 80 laps between them for the Italian team, though the Japanese engine remains down on power compared to its rivals, with both drivers lapping around two seconds slower than the leading cars.

Sauber brought up the rear, with both Marcus Ericsson and rookie Charles Leclerc 2.8 seconds off the pace.

Final practice for the Australian Grand Prix starts tomorrow at 10am (ICT) ahead of qualifying at 1pm.