After a long, cold winter break Formula 1 is back this weekend with the opening race in Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia. And for all of us Free Practice on Friday is the first opportunity we will have to see the pecking order for the start of the season. Or as Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff so eloquently put it. “As the old saying goes, it is when the flag drops that the bulls**t really stops.”
Despite the fact it was a new season though, it appears some things never change. They may not have come to Australia as favourites to be the fastest team. But Mercedes silenced all of their critics with a 1-2 finish in Free Practice One, with Lewis Hamilton ahead of new team mate Valtteri Bottas by over half a second. Hamilton’s lap time of 1:24.220 was over five seconds faster than the benchmark time in FP1 a year ago, proving at least that the rule changes did deliver on the promise of rapid increases in speed. It is worth noting however the two Mercedes drivers were the only cars in the field to set their fastest time on ultrasoft tyres, the quickest tyre in Pirelli’s portfolio, and the quickest tyres available here this weekend. But even when adjusting the times to take this into account it was a stunning display, especially from Hamilton to pull that kind of time difference over his team mate who is driving the exact same car. It was a though FP1 for Bottas as he settles into like at the reigning constructors’ champions, but he did show some promise for the rest of the weekend.
The Red Bull drivers were third and fourth respectively, with home boy Daniel Ricciardo edging out team mate Max Verstappen. FP1 saw many of the teams dropping the sandbags they had on the cars during pre-season testing, and a good example of that was at Red Bull. After being there during the tests but not really showing anything spectacular Ricciardo was the quickest driver of all on the supersoft tyres, the first hint maybe of the RB13’s true potential. It did of course help that the Red Bull came to Australia with a series of new aerodynamic improvements we did not see on the car during testing, proving once again the might of having Adrian Newey in your team when the new rules favour aero. The team was also helped by the fact that engine suppliers Renault have also introduced fixes for their winter reliability problems.
The team on everyone’s lips though seemed to be playing things close to their chest during the first session. Ferrari, while finishing fifth and sixth respectively opted to be spectators for the bulk of proceedings, especially with Sebastian Vettel. The thought behind this was that the team did not want to waste precious engine life on a dusty, green track. With just four engines now to last a season this decision could prove to be important later into the season.
The battle for the midfield looked fierce though with just eight hundredths of a second separating Felipe Massa’s Williams in seventh from Sergio Perez’s Force India in tenth. With both Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg between the two in the Haas and Renault respectively.
As expected however McLaren’s bad start to the season from winter testing carried on into Free Practice one. Stoffel Vandoorne’s car suffered a water leak, resulting in the car being in the garage for most of the session. To add insult to injury Vandoorne finished last of all twenty runners almost four and a half seconds off the pace of Hamilton. There was at least one crumb of comfort for the team though, as Fernando Alonso somehow managed to get the car up the timesheets to a respectable 14th place without issues. The car also looks to be running a little more reliably than it had been at pre-season testing, though it is clear there is still a long way to go before that car will be right.
Free Practice Two was much the same story, with Hamilton once again dominating the session by over half a second from his nearest rival, in this case the Ferrari of Vettel who succeeded in splitting the Mercedes duo. Indeed Hamilton’s pacesetting FPP2 lap of 1:23.620 was within one tenth of the quickest lap ever recorded at Albert Park, and it would be amiss of us to think that cannot be broken in Qualifying tomorrow at some point.
“It was 99 per cent perfect.” Hamilton said. “After struggling with some issues in Barcelona, we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here. What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be.
Meanwhile team mate Bottas was once again over half a second slower than Hamilton in the same car, he finished the session third ahead of fellow countryman Kimi Raikkonen in his Ferrari. While Ricciardo and Verstappen finished fifth and sixth respectively as once again Ricciardo outpaced his younger team mate.
The interesting battle though for the midfield was happening behind. Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz was an impressive seventh for the team, just three tenths ahead of Grosjean and Hulkenberg. With the top six spots seemingly sewed up with the big three teams, the battle for the midfield has been where many people’s eyes have been. Pre-season showed us it was going to be close amongst the teams battling for the mid field, but what Free Practice showed us is the battle for the remaining top ten positions will likely be fierce. There is no room for complacency here, teams are going to have to be faultless as every point will count.
FP2 also saw many drivers exploring the very limits of their cars, and in most cases the track as well. One of the first drivers to be caught out was the Red Bull of Verstappen. The driver missed out on not just a long run later on in the session but the opportunity to set a better flying lap after damaging his car’s floor when running over the gravel on the exit of the fast Turn 10-11 complex.
“I had a bit of understeer, so went off the track and damaged the floor,” Verstappen told the media after. “We tried to find a better balance and we are just a bit too slow. We are where I expected us to be.”
He was not the only driver to suffer problems though. Williams lost Massa’s car when an electrical problem stopped his FW40 on track towards the end of the session. Both Massa and team mate Lance Stroll finished down the table in FP2 in 14th and 16th respectively. However, Williams do tend to have a habit of not showing their full potential in practice sessions, so it is likely both drivers will move up the timesheet in FP3 and Qualifying tomorrow.
However the worst crash of FP2 that saw the red flag come out for a period belongs to Renault driver Jolyon Palmer. After a transmission problem cost him time in FP1 in the morning, Palmer managed to crash at the final corner, putting him out of the remainder of the session with major damage to both the front and rear of the car. The team seemed just as shocked as Palmer was at the time, as it did appear at first that he corrected the small mistake, though despite that the car still ploughed into the barriers. Leaving the Renault boys with a hell of a repair job.
There was at least some positive news McLaren as they managed to make it through the session without any issues. Although the gap to the front remains large at around 2.4 seconds during FP2 Alonso at least finished a respectable 12th place. However, there were a number of faster cars behind him such as both Williams’, which as previously mentioned are likely to move forwards in time for qualifying.
The teams will get one last chance to run in Free Practice 3 tomorrow before Qualifying gets underway.
Australian GP Practice One Timesheet
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:24.220
2. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, +0.583
3. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, +0.666
4. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, +1.026
5. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, +1.152
6. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, +1.244
7. Felipe Massa, Williams, +1.922
8. Romain Grosjean, Haas, +1.948
9. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, +1.963
10. Sergio Perez, Force India, +2.056
11. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, +2.230
12. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, +2.294
13. Lance Stroll, Williams, +2.514
14. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, +2.896
15. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, +3.128
16. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +3.436
17. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +3.447
18. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, +4.319
19. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, +4.365
20. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, +4.475
Australian GP Practice Two Timesheet
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:23.620
2. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari + 0.547
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes + 0.556
4. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari + 0.905
5. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull +1.030
6. Max Verstappen, Red Bull +1.393
7. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso +1.464
8. Romain Grosjean, Haas +1.816
9. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault +1.858
10. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso +1.873
11. Sergio Perez, Force India +1.971
12. Fernando Alonso, McLaren +2.380
13. Esteban Ocon, Force India +2.525
14. Felipe Massa, Williams +2.711
15. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber +2.878
16. Lance Stroll, Williams +2.905
17. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren +2.988
18. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber +3.299
19. Kevin Magnussen, Haas +3.659
20. Jolyon Palmer, Renault +3.929
Feature Image Credit: Scuderia Ferrari F1 Press Release