Lewis Hamilton resumed on Friday where he had left off last season by dominating proceedings and topping the times for Mercedes in opening free practice for Sunday’s season-opening 2017 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
The three-time world champion, who has taken pole for the last three Melbourne races, clocked a best lap time in one minute and 24.220 seconds around a sun-lit Albert Park circuit to lead the way ahead of his new Mercedes team-mate Finn Valtteri Bottas, the man recruited following the retirement of 2016 world champion German Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton’s time endorsed the expectation that this year’s new generation ‘fatter and faster’ F1 machines will threaten the lap records in Melbourne and confirmed many pundits’ forecast that Mercedes remain the team to beat this year.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo was third fastest for Red Bull, but six-tenths off Hamilton’s pace, ahead of his team-mate Dutchman Max Verstappen, Finn Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 champion, and his Ferrari team-mate four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel.
This meant the leading three teams filled the top six as expected – or feared – and left back-from-retirement Brazilian Felipe Massa leading the chasing pack in his Williams, but nearly two seconds away from Hamilton’s lap and seven-tenths adrift of the pace set by Vettel.
Frenchman Romain Grosjean was eighth for Haas, German Nico Hulkenberg ninth in his first run with Renault and Mexican Sergio Perez 10th for the bright pink-liveried Force India outfit, these three all in a close cluster behind the top teams.
At the start, Grosjean and Vettel were the first men out of the pit-lane to complete ‘installation’ laps, their Haas and Ferrari cars giving the fans a glimpse of the ‘fatter and faster’ cars introduced this year.
This first passage of the new generation machines was followed by a lengthy period of inactivity in warm sunshine as the machines were all checked over, and their data analysed, before any serious lapping took place.
When it did, Canadian rookie Lance Stroll was the first to clock a time in his Williams with a lap in one minute and 33.380 seconds. It was a ‘safety first’ effort, designed to settle him, and his team down before speeds increased and times were cut.
Once the leading outfits joined in, three-time champion Hamilton was setting the pace for Mercedes with an early lap in 1:26.478, soon followed by fastest efforts from Ricciardo, in his Red Bull, and Bottas, in the other Mercedes, who topped the times with 1:25.142.
On a dry, partly-cloudy morning, the track temperature rose to 33 degrees Celsius as the air reached 21, some way below the conditions expected for Friday’s second free practice session later in the afternoon.
As to be expected at the opening event of the season, there were long pauses for some teams as they checked and revised the settings for their cars, but the lap times continued to tumble.
After an hour of the 90 minutes, Ricciardo had climbed to the top in 1:24.886 before Bottas responded in 1:24.803, both times prompting a need for some reaction from Hamilton.
When it came, it was emphatic: a best of 1:24.220 to move him half a second clear of Bottas and within sight of the race lap record set by seven-time champion German Michael Schumacher – 1:24.125, for Ferrari, in 2004.
Both Mercedes men, who topped the times, had set their times on Pirelli’s ultra-soft tyres while most of their rivals continued to run on super-softs.
For the rest, in an incident-free session, there was encouragement in Candian teenager Lance Stroll’s first outing to take 13th spot for Williams behind the two Toro Rossos, but ahead of two-time champion Fernando Alonso.
The Spaniard managed 18 laps in his McLaren Honda while his new team-mate Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne did 14, but wound up down in 20th and last place, confirmation, if needed, that the team are still struggling for power.