The waiting is over and finally the new F1 season is upon us. Hopefully, it’ll be a more unpredictable one than in recent years and the practice sessions for the Australian Grand Prix, gave a few indications that might be the case, though it wasn’t all good news for Red Bull.
Those signs weren’t entirely there in the first practice session as defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton finished 0.551 seconds clear of team-mate Valtteri Bottas who was 0.745 seconds in front of Max Verstappen in his Red Bull. However, the Red Bull and the fourth placed Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel in their Ferrari’s weren’t on the fastest ultra-soft tyres that the Mercedes ran on. Vettel didn’t have the easiest of times though running wide on to the grass at Turn 13.
Hamilton, who won this race in 2008 and 2015, set several laps that were faster than the rest of the field. He’ll be hoping to get his title defence off to a solid start on a track with a low-grip surface that suits him well.
Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull finished sixth with the Haas of Romain Grosjean in seventh and Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in eighth. It had been another difficult session for Alonso with an exhaust problem preventing his McLaren from venturing out onto the track for the first half of the session.
He may well have finished eighth, but you just get the feeling something will go wrong with his McLaren forcing a retirement on Sunday and the same most likely applies to his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne who was 10th fastest. Vandoorne was just ahead of the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly who didn’t seem to have any problems with the Honda engine that caused McLaren so many nightmares last year.
It proved to be a much closer battle in second practice with just 0.283 seconds separating Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, though it wasn’t all good news for the latter of those teams.
Lewis Hamilton was again fastest but only 0.127 seconds ahead of Max Verstappen. It would have been a wider gap if the British driver hadn’t lost time during the middle sector of his fastest lap. Third fastest was Valtteri Bottas with the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen in fourth. Again, Sebastian Vettel wasn’t on top form and finished fifth fastest with Grosjean in sixth and Daniel Ricciardo in seventh and Fernando Alonso eighth.
Ricciardo obviously wants to impress in front of his home crowd but received a three-place penalty after being judged to fail to slow sufficiently under red flag conditions. That’s not good news for Red Bull who looked impressive on Friday and when the teams simulated the first stage of the Grand Prix, they looked to have a slight advantage over Mercedes. With rain forecast for the weekend it could be a very interesting start to the 2018 season.
Speaking after second practice, Lewis Hamilton didn’t seem too upset over the fact Red Bull and Ferrari were getting closer. “The gap closed up a little bit, but that’s exciting anyway,” he said. “It’s more challenging for me to eke out more from the car, discover whether I have lost something, or they have all gained, but I enjoyed driving.”
I’ll be back tomorrow with a report on final practice and qualifying. Till then, enjoy your racing.
By Steve Ashfield