Mercedes start ‘on the right foot’ but rivals are closing in

Lewis Hamilton on track on Friday at the Australian Grand Prix.

Mercedes has started the 2018 season by topping both Friday practice sessions at the Australian Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton leading the way on both occasions.

Reigning world champion Bottas beat teammate Valtteri Bottas by half a second in free practice one, but the gap was slashed to little over a tenth of a second in the free practice two, with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen usurping Bottas on the time sheet.

Hamilton, however, dropped at least two-tenths of a second in the second sector on his best FP2 lap, hinting at more pace still to come on Saturday.

“We started on the right foot today, we got through everything we needed,” Hamilton said. “It closed up a little bit in FP2 in terms of the gap between us all, but that’s exciting — it’s more challenging for me to try and eke out a little more from the car.”

The first practice sessions in Melbourne were always going to be critical given the inclement weather during preseason testing in Barcelona that made it difficult to collect useful performance data, and Hamilton was pleased to learn that his car was better behaved on its tyres in the autumnal Melbourne weather than it was in snowy Spain.

“It’s been such a nice day. Albert Park is a really beautiful place to be and work when the weather is like this,” he said. “The tyres definitely didn’t seem to have the same issue that we had in Barcelona where they were blistering, so it felt a lot more normal.”

Valtteri Bottas, who will be targeting a contract extension this year, suffered fuel and suspension issues that hamstrung his practice time, but the Finn said he wasn’t concerned about the gap that created between him and teammate Hamilton.

“I don’t think these issues are something to worry about, just something we discovered in the session,” he said. “In second practice the car felt a lot better, but there’s still more to unlock.”

Despite Mercedes and Hamilton’s superiority on Friday, the times are yet to bear out the more pessimistic predictions of a Silver Arrows whitewash. Only 0.283 seconds separated Mercedes, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari by the end of second practice, and long-run calculations suggest there’s little to separate the three on race pace and that RBR may hold a marginal advantage.

“It’s looking really close between us, Ferrari and Red Bull, but that was more or less expected,” Bottas said. “Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

“We got some information for the long runs if it’s a dry race, we got some tyre data and we can see that a lot of things are behaving differently to testing in Barcelona because it’s much warmer and it’s a different tarmac. We’ve definitely learned a lot and we’ll keep on learning.”

Whether or not the Australian Grand Prix will feature a dry race or even a dry qualifying are big questions, however, with weather forecasts predicting a near-certain chance of rain on Saturday and likely showers on Sunday.

But Hamilton isn’t concerned; rather, he sees potential benefit in the colder weather.

“As I’m aware. I’ve not driven in the rain yet on these tyres, so that’ll be interesting,” Hamilton said. “Normally when it gets cooler, it gets better [for us]. It gets easier.

“Usually when it gets hotter, it’s often in the past suited other teams. I don’t know if I’ve driver in the rain yet on these tyres yet, that’s going to be interesting.”