Published: Sat, March 16, 2019
Sport | By Patty Hardy

Hamilton on top as Ferrari struggle in season's first exchanges

Hamilton on top as Ferrari struggle in season's first exchanges

Lewis Hamilton made a mockery of his claim that Ferrari would be half-a-second quicker at the Australian Grand Prix by easily clocking the fastest times in the season's opening practice runs Friday.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen recorded a time of one minute 23.792 seconds, good enough for fourth place and was followed by Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas on one minute 23.866 seconds.

Vettel was not far off the pace of the Red Bulls in the second session but he slid through the grass and complained of handling problems on the team radio.

Ferrari's new SF90 vehicle has been widely regarded as the early benchmark of the 2019 F1 field, and Hamilton suggested in Barcelona that Mercedes could be as much as half a second adrift.

Perhaps F1 would be wise, though, not to pin its hopes for 2019 exclusively on a straight duel between Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, his erstwhile adversary at Ferrari.

It was also an encouraging session for Kimi Raikkonen and Alfa Romeo, the team formerly known as Sauber. As usual, the first race on the calendar is the Australian Grand Prix, which runs this weekend at the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit, a street circuit in the vicinity of Melbourne's Albert Park.

Nico Hulkenberg and home hope Daniel Ricciardo, who switched from Red Bull, were seventh and eighth fastest respectively in FP2.

But all the ability in the world can't mask the fact the auto just isn't good enough.

Ferrari's Vettel ended the session in fifth place, while Leclerc - who spun after climbing the exit kerb at Turn 4 in the closing moments of the session - was down in ninth, 1.154s adrift of the pace. "They are still the team to beat - we are just trying to improve and go as fast as we can". The forecast is for warmer conditions for Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race. "We got through our programme really well, there were no issues on track".

The Formula 1 season has begun again, with faster cars, new rules, and new line-ups.

The German said afterwards it had been "a tricky day".

"If you look how close it actually is, even the mid pack is a lot closer, so I would say even more than ever before there's even less margin for error". His first race with Renault after leaving the Red Bull team previous year.

Thai driver Alex Albon had a debut to forget with Toro Rosso, leading that group of four outlying drivers at the back of the field after a scrappy two sessions, including a crash early in the day. He reiterated that Mercedes had plenty of "work to do" in Thursday's media conference.

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