Mercedes fastest in FP2, Ferrari fifth and ninth

Mercedes fastest in FP2, Ferrari fifth and ninth

MELBOURNE, March 15 ― Defending Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton topped the timesheets for Mercedes at the first free practice for the Australian Grand Prix today, edging rivals Ferrari in an eventful session.

Hamilton beat Valtteri Bottas by 0.048 seconds but the two were 0.8secs clear of the two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly.

Verstappen's attacking style and sheer pace has seen him long tipped to become a future world champion and Red Bull showed their faith with a contract that pays him only less than multiple-time world champions Hamilton and Vettel and the bumper deal Ricciardo signed with Renault.

It was also an encouraging session for Kimi Raikkonen and Alfa Romeo, the team formerly known as Sauber.

The guessing game over who is Formula 1's fastest won't end until Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, according to leading team bosses.

Renault's Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo were seventh and eighth, closely matched after the Australian had a tricky day with a number of delays, first due to a technical problem and then the need to adjust his seat to reduce discomfort in the vehicle.

Charles Leclerc had a hard session, ending up down in ninth place and over 1.1s off the pace on his soft tire run, and then suffering a slightly unusual spin late in the session.

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Hamilton, whose first win of last season came in Azerbaijan in round four, said he did not feel as if he needed to grab the new campaign by the scruff of the neck. "There's plenty of things we can improve on, which is a positive, but it's absolutely not a bad start at all". Are the red cars keeping something in reserve for qualifying and the race?

"Check the auto in turns one and four".

The German said afterwards it had been "a tricky day". Not so much in terms of lap time but more in terms of vehicle feel and handling.

"We didn't really get into the groove and the rhythm and I hope tomorrow is a better day". "But it is when we are trousers down on Saturday (in qualifying) that will be the real benchmark", he said.

British-born Thai debutant Alexander Albon also had a tough start, spinning his Toro Rosso at turn two and having a low-impact crash to lose his front wing and cause a brief halt in the session.

Adding to the confusion, on the race-distance runs late in second practice, Vettel on the fastest "soft" tyre was only very slightly faster than team-mate Charles Leclerc on the slowest "hard".

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