Mercedes sets early pace at Australian Grand Prix practice

Sauber driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco drives down pit lane during the first practice session at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Friday, March 23, 2018. The first race of the 2018 seasons is on Sunday. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Mercedes sets early pace at Australian Grand Prix practice, topping Red Bull and Ferrari

MELBOURNE, Australia — Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton sent an early signal that he could again be the driver to beat in Formula One this season, setting the swiftest time in the Friday's practice sessions at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

After earlier playing down his team's chances against Ferrari and Red Bull, Hamilton set a one-lap time of 1 minute, 23.931 seconds on a bright, clear afternoon at the 5.303-kilometer (3.295-mile) Albert Park circuit, and showed superior long-run pace with the lowest average lap time on ultrasoft tires, as well.

The gap between Hamilton and Red Bull's Max Verstappen was relatively small, however, with the 20-year-old Dutch driver turning in a fastest lap time of 1:24.058, just over 0.1 behind Hamilton.

"It's good to get started again," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. "We've had a pretty good test, much better than last year. But you're never very sure where that will end up in the first race."

Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas, who lost practice time after going off the track into the gravel in Friday's second session, was 0.1 second behind Verstappen in third place, followed by the Ferrari cars of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel in fourth and fifth, respectively.

"Obviously, difficult to read too much into times, but you start to get a bit of an idea and you can see Mercedes really taking off where they left off (last year)," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "I'm envisaging a quite tight battle with (Ferrari), but I'm not sure at the moment what the delta is to Toto (Wolff's) cars."

Vettel, who pushed Hamilton hard last season and had spoken of Ferrari's improvement in the off-season, was a surprising 0.5 second behind the defending world champion.

In another big surprise, Romain Grosjean showed good pace in his Haas car, setting a fastest time of 1:24.648, just ahead of Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo's hopes of a fifth career GP win — and a first podium on his home track in Melbourne — were dented when he was hit with a three-place grid penalty for Sunday's race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions because of debris on the track near the end of second practice.

Ricciardo escaped with a relatively lenient penalty after stewards reviewed video evidence and took his explanation on good faith. They determined he did slow down significantly in the final turns, but an error in reading his dashboard meant he completed the lap too fast.

"Breach of this regulation is seen to be an extremely serious matter," race stewards said in a statement. "However, in this case, the Stewards thoroughly reviewed the breach and found that the driver slowed significantly, such that no danger was created, and that the driver proceeded with due care."

Ricciardo was also given two penalty points on his license.

He has not had much luck in Melbourne, having never finished higher than fourth. Four years ago, a jubilant Ricciardo crossed the line in second place only to be disqualified for a fuel flow irregularity.

McLaren, meanwhile, also rebounded from a dismal start to the day to see its drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, post the eighth- and 10th-fastest times, respectively. Both drivers were stuck in the garage for much of the first session with exhaust issues in their cars.

The drivers in the middle of the pack after Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari were as tightly grouped as expected, with less than a second separating Alonso in eighth with Sergey Sirotkin of Williams in 18th.

The closeness of Verstappen to Hamilton, as well as the cluster of times in the middle of the field, sets up the prospect of an exciting qualifying session on Saturday. Another factor may be the weather as showers are forecast for both Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race.

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