Records began to tumble at Albert Park on Friday when Lewis Hamilton topped the times in his Mercedes in Free Practice 2 for Sunday’s season-opening 2017 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
The three-time world champion Briton clocked a best lap time of one minute and 23.620 seconds to outpace his nearest rival four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari by more than half a second.
Earlier Hamilton had topped the times in Friday morning’s opening practice session as he made a convincing statement about his intentions after claiming pole position at Albert Park for the last three years.
Finn Valtteri Bottas was third in the second Mercedes, within a whisker of Vettel’s time, on his maiden outing for the Silver Arrows after taking over from retired 2016 world champion German Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton’s time was comfortably inside the track’s official race lap record of 1:24.125, set by seven-time champion German Michael Schumacher for Ferrari in 2004 – a feat widely forecast following the introduction of this year’s ‘fatter and faster’ cars.
It left him within sight of Vettel’s pole position lap record of 1:23.529 set in a Red Bull in 2011, a target he is likely to pass during, or before, qualifying on Saturday afternoon.
Finn Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, was fourth for Ferrari ahead of the two Red Bulls of Australian Daniel Ricciardo and Dutchman Jos Verstappen and Spaniard Carlos Sainz in the leading Toro Rosso.
Frenchman Romain Grosjean was eighth for the American Haas team ahead of German Nico Hulkenberg, making his debut with Renault after moving from Force India, and Russian Daniil Kvyat in the second Toro Rosso, who did a total of 39 laps in the session, the most by any driver.
The session began in warm sunshine, with a track temperature of 30 degrees and the air at 22, near-perfect conditions as the circuit began to ‘rubber’ in for improved lap times.
Grosjean was, once again, the first man out in his Ferrari-powered Haas, before the Ferrari team, fifth and sixth in the morning, began to show its hand.
Raikkonen topped the times after 15 minutes before he was overhauled when his team-mate Vettel took over with a lap in 1:24.926.
At that stage, most teams were working on longer runs and testing tyres, rather than chasing outright lap times.
The session was then red-flagged to a halt when Briton Jolyon Palmer lost control of his Renault and smacked the barriers at the final corner. “I’m fine,” he told the team. His car, alas, was not.
Once the Renault, with damaged wheels, was loaded and carried away, the session soon resumed, Bottas sweeping to the top of the times before Hamilton became the first driver to go below 1:24.
His lap after 41 minutes was timed at 1:23.620 and lifted him half a second clear of his team-mate. He was also faster than seven-time champion Michael Schumacher’s record race lap time of 1:24.125.
Vettel, in pursuit, was fast enough to outpace Bottas by nine-hundredths of a second, a lap that enabled him to split the Mercedes’ men.
By then, Felipe Massa’s day was curtailed when he steered his Williams into an exit road at Turn 10 with what looked like a gearbox problem.
The back-from-retirement Brazilian had managed only six laps, leaving his rookie team-mate Canadian teenager Lance Stroll with the task of accumulating laps and data for the team.
Another early retiree was the sport’s other teenager, 19-year-old Dutchman Max Verstappen who had damaged the floor of his Red Bull during an earlier off-circuit excursion through grass and gravel. He did eight laps.
Dane Kevin Magnussen, in the second Haas, was also limited in his running due to unconfirmed technical problems after only six laps.
A second incident of the day triggered the use of a Virtual Safety Car in the final minutes when Swede Marcus Ericsson went off at Turn Six in his Sauber, ending up in the gravel.