Following speculation that Ferrari could have the best car come the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, world champions Mercedes headed straight to the top of the time-sheets from the very start of practice in Australia to make themselves clear favourites for the victory.
The Mercedes W08, who face the prospect of their hardest fight yet in the turbo era with rivals Ferrari and Red Bull, set extraordinary pace both on their short and long-runs, following a Barcelona test which didn’t go as smooth as the team had wanted – which gave the impression to many that Ferrari are the new favourites.
With Valtteri Bottas still getting to grips with his new team upon his debut weekend for the Brackley based team, Hamilton was able to stretch his legs out, and unmasked the advantage of the Mercedes’, which was hidden throughout the Barcelona test, whilst Ferrari were shining.
Hamilton’s best lap during his qualifying-simulation run was a 1.23.620 on the ultra-soft tyres, which gave him a 0.5s advantage over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton, who shined during Friday Practice, insisted coming into the first race of the season in Melbourne that Ferrari were favourites for 2017, however was relived when talking to the media after Friday Practice 2.
“It was a night-and-day difference to how the car felt on the last day of testing, which was kind of a relief for all of us,” Hamilton said, commenting on Mercedes’ form.
“There’s things we struggled with in the test and things weren’t quite perfect in the car. Here the car’s brand new, the car’s fresh: new floor, new wings, everything. Everything’s performing at its optimum, which is great.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into today, whether we’d be ahead or not. It’s a wonderful feeling, coming into a new era, to have a car be so strong.”
Mercedes didn’t just hold a headline grabbing time on the qualifying simulations, as data suggests that the Silver Arrows advantage could be even greater when it comes to race pace.
Bottas, who was not able to capitalize during the qualifying simulation runs, set the best average of any driver during race simulations. The Finn driver averaged a 1.27.968 on the super-soft tyre, which compares to team-mate Hamilton’s 1.28.057 on the super-soft tyre.
Putting Bottas and Hamilton’s long-runs into context, the team hold a key advantage, with Ferrari, their closest rival, who averaged a 1.28.925 with Kimi Raikkonen on the ultra-soft tyres – this gives Mercedes almost a second advantage over their closest rivals – with other teams like Red Bull even further back.
More to come from Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel was certain that Ferrari didn’t have the best of Friday Practices, as the Ferrari driver highlighted that the balance was one of the key areas that held the team back from getting closer to Mercedes.
The German also revealed that Ferrari’s lack of running during Practice 1 was down to a problem, and remains confident that overnight changes can increase Ferrari’s chances in the fight for pole come qualifying.
“Today is not really that important in the end.” Vettel said.
“It is very important but not when you look at the final standings, one lap time only. I think overall it’s been OK.
“We had some small trouble this morning, which cost us some track time so it took a bit longer to get into the groove. Overall I think we can still improve. The car doesn’t yet feel as good as it should and as it can. I’m confident we can do something overnight.
“I think the car feels good. It hasn’t changed much, I mean it’s only two weeks ago we got out of the car but it’s good to be back here and as I said we can still improve.”
Red Bull ‘a bit too slow’
In the battle for the top three teams, Friday Practice provided indications that Red Bull could well be the slowest of the three top teams, with team boss Christian Horner labelling the results from Friday Practice Two as “accurate” – as Red Bull trailed Mercedes by more than a second.
Ricciardo was the faster of the two Red Bull’s during the second practice session, as the Australian set a 1:24.650 as his fastest time, which was 1.130s adrift of Hamilton’s fastest lap. Team-mate Verstappen, meanwhile, was 1.3s adrift of Hamilton, who had a major off-track excursion during his fast lap.
“We’re just trying to find a better balance. I think we are a bit too slow. We’re trying to improve.” Verstappen said, commenting on Red Bull’s form.
“I think we’re where I expected us to be. We’re trying to make the best of it at the moment.”