IN PICS: Hamilton storms FP2 of Australian Grand Prix

Sport360 staff 24/03/2017

Lewis Hamilton sizzled in the opening practice sessions at the Australian Grand Prix as he sent an ominous message to his rivals for the new Formula One season on Friday.

The triple world champion bossed the field in the afternoon run to hold a half-second gap over Ferrari title rival Sebastian Vettel and his new Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton followed up his field-leading fastest lap of 1:24.220 in the first session with a blistering 1:23.620 around Albert Park in the late afternoon.

It was around one-tenth of a second off Vettel’s record lap in Melbourne of 1:23.529, posted for Red Bull in qualifying ahead of his 2011 race victory.

Ferrari were expected to press Hamilton and the Mercedes team after superior times in pre-season testing, but on the evidence of the opening two sessions Hamilton again looked the driver to beat in Sunday’s race.

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Hamilton heaps pressure on Ferrari, labelling them favourites

F1i 23/03/2017
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Hamilton thinks Ferrari are the team to beat.

The Scuderia emerged from pre-season testing with a performance which impressed the Mercedes driver. An astute observer of Sebastian Vettel’s comments and body language, Hamilton isn’t buying the toned down attitude of his rival.

“I see Ferrari are being the quickest at the moment,” said Hamilton in Melbourne.

“I think they will definitely be the favourites. But of course we’ll find out more going into the weekend.”

“It’s interesting to see, Sebastian’s usually a lot more hype and I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

But Hamilton wasn’t discarding Red Bull Racing however, believing the Milton Keynes team will step up its performance compared to what it showed in Barcelona.

“I’m very keen to see what Red Bull bring because they were quite far behind through testing, at least compared to Ferrari.

“Didn’t see them bringing many upgrades, or any upgrades, as far as I could see. I’m assuming they’re bringing something here, I’m excited to see what they do bring.”

Hamilton also said he was keen for Mercedes to have a good fight on its hands, because “that’s what racing is about”, said the three-time world champion.

“As far as I’m aware no team has won back-to-back through rules changes,” he added.

“So that is our goal as a team. We’re here to win, we’re here to do something no one else has done.

“I feel whether or not we’re in the right place at this moment in the season we’ll find out but I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

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COMMENT: Time for Vettel to climb back to the top

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In action: Vettel during Barcelona testing.

Sebastian Vettel turns 30 this season and, while it’s a milestone age traditionally of little significance in Formula One, for the German it only seeks to highlight he stands at something of a crossroads in his career.

Two barren years at Ferrari have bore him just three race victories – all in 2014 – and his current run of one win in 27 races is the longest drought of his career.

Having transferred from the dominant force in F1 to one of the dominated at Ferrari, he and the Prancing Horse have been plagued by unreliability.

For one of the coolest and most composed of drivers on the grid, it’s been two years of unfulfilment and uncharacteristic frustration which, for all the millions he must earn, can surely only go on for so long.

Vettel is a winner – the fourth most in history, in terms of GPs, as it goes – and needs a winners’ car. Coasting home each race somewhere between 4-6, with the occasional podium is simply not up to a driver of his calibre’s standards.

However, amid all this in a new season where new technical regulations are set to shake up the grid, this could be the year when the 29-year-old proves he still has the determination, grit and commitment to challenge for glory.

If pre-season testing acts as an indicator – with Vettel second overall – then Ferrari could be finally in with a real chance of running Mercedes, at least close, for this year.

Of course, we have heard this year on year, especially at the start of 2016 when there was high hopes for Ferrari to end their drought.

Vettel took the lead after the first lap in Australia but poor decision making under red flag conditions derailed his chances, while Mercedes’ use of a harder compound tyre proved more fruitful, resulting in a one-two finish.

Further opportunities to win in Spain and Canada evaporated and soon the Silver Arrows were out of sight, Vettel ending the year winless and fourth in the Drivers’ Championship.

The car is the most important piece to any driver’s puzzle and after a strong pre-season, Vettel is surely gathering some of the old magic again with a new car that boasts more power, better braking and effective grip from the tyres.

Vettel’s single lap times looked promising, an area of weakness for the Scuderia for many years, and this should give him a major advantage if he can qualify ahead of his rivals, on fast tracks where race strategy is likely to be one stop, such as Monza and Mexico.

Sport is about confidence and with no Nico Rosberg to compete for a podium place, Vettel needs to believe he can finally be back in the mix again and threaten Hamilton at the front of the grid.

He has the ability and intelligence to get a near-perfect lap every time he’s on the track, the mental characteristics to handle pressure and is equally adept at overcoming the oversteer. F1 needs its most recognisable teams and faces pushing the envelope in each race.

Of course, it’s nice to see different drivers finish on the podium, but to have Vettel going wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton or Max Verstappen for that top spot more regularly will make the sport more captivating.

The German has endured three poor seasons but the forthcoming campaign is a real litmus test to determine where he stands in the list of great drivers.

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