FP1: Mercedes stake their claim in Melbourne
They were heavily tipped as favourites heading into the new season, and Mercedes did nothing to dispel that notion during the first practice session of 2018 as Lewis Hamilton led the Silver Arrows to a one-two finish. However, with rivals Red Bull and Ferrari not utilising the quickest ultrasoft tyres for their fastest runs, the true extent of the world champions’ advantage - if indeed they have one - remains to be seen...
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to take to the track as the new season kicked off under bright blue skies in Melbourne. As expected, after a slow start, times began to drop rapidly as the drivers found their feet and rubber was laid down on the temporary circuit.
Despite being the last team to venture out on track, Mercedes were quickly into their stride, with Hamilton and team mate Valtteri Bottas trading fastest times with the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. However, by the end of the session, the Silver Arrows looked well on top, albeit after leaning heavily on the ultrasoft tyres.
World champion Hamilton, in imperious form, ended up half a second clear of Bottas, with Max Verstappen third for Red Bull, his supersoft-shod lap leaving him seven-tenths adrift of P1.
Kimi Raikkonen, who ran exclusively on softs, led the Ferrari charge in fourth, from team mate Sebastian Vettel, who did limited supersoft running, and the second Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo.
Williams rookie Sergey Sirotkin had the honour of setting the first time of the year, though the Russian almost had the first accident too, when he subsequently brushed his FW41 against the wall when entering the pit lane. He ended up a creditable P12, three places ahead of team mate Lance Stroll.
Charles Leclerc, the other 'true' rookie on the grid didn't fare quite as well, finishing bottom of the pile as Sauber proved they have much work to do with the brand-new C37.
Toughest start to the season? That had to be McLaren – or so it seemed initially. Fernando Alonso was the last man to set a time after exhaust issues, and he and team mate Stoffel Vandoorne completed just 31 laps between them.
However, once on track Alonso quickly hinted at his Renault-powered car’s true potential, rapidly leaping into the top ten. The Spaniard ended up an encouraging eighth, with Vandoorne backing him up in tenth.
Elsewhere, Haas proved just as quick as predicted after pre-season testing, with Romain Grosjean’s seventh place making the American squad ‘best of the rest’ behind the leading three teams. However, team mate Kevin Magnussen, who had earlier gone off at the penultimate corner, ended his session in the garage after a sensor issue was discovered on his car.
Renault were the final team to feature in the top ten, courtesy of Carlos Sainz in ninth.
The question is, will FP2 throw up a different pecking order entirely or has the die been cast?