Lewis Hamilton topped the time sheets in free practice with his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas finishing second, a minor wake-up call to Red Bull and especially Ferrari with their pre-season form.
The Mercedes drivers were the only two that ran the purple-trim Ultrasoft tyre, with Ricciardo the closest competitor, six-tenths down on Hamilton’s best time of 1.24.220. Verstappen finished a second behind Hamilton’s time, but like his Red Bull teammate, was running the Supersoft compound, which is expected to be around three-tenths slower around Albert Park.
Ferrari didn’t do much running, citing that the track was too dusty and green for any data runs of worth. It means that Raikkonen and Vettel were only fifth and sixth after a pre-season that made them appear to be much more competitive. They may still get closer to Mercedes if they ever show their true, possibly inflated hand.
The signs of a tight midfield in 2017 were evidential in this session, with Massa, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Perez rounding out the top ten. The leading Williams, Haas, Renault and Force India were only separated by a tenth of a second, suggesting that if it does prove to be another stalemate at the top of the grid, a real tooth and claw fight will be happening in the lower scoring points positions.
Sainz and Kvyat finished eleventh and twelfth, with the second Williams of Lance Stroll just behind. The Canadian rookie had a positive first session, registering 29 laps around Albert Park, the second highest tally of the session.
McLaren fans will be happy to hear that Fernando Alonso managed to get the Honda-powered car into fourteenth, 2.8s down on the ultimate pace of Hamilton, but a step forward nonetheless. His teammate Stoffel Vandoorne finished with the slowest time of the session, but crucially, there weren’t any power unit issues with either car, which is a minor miracle in the context of pre-season testing.
Marcus Ericsson finished 15th completed 30 laps and beat his teammate Pascal Wehrlein in this session. Jolyon Palmer had a disastrous start to 2017 with a broken seal on his RS17 finishing his session very early on.
The conclusions from the first session of 2017 put Mercedes in the hot seat, but it a strange move from the World Champions to run the ultrasoft compound when no other team did so. In FP2, with more rubber bedded into the track, Red Bull and Ferrari might be tempted to run the ultras, and this will give a much clearer picture to the running order at the front. With four other teams in the top ten, it looks like it’s going to be a real scramble for points for the midfielders.
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