Hamilton and Mercedes throw down gauntlet

 24 Mar 2017 - 9:32

Hamilton and Mercedes throw down gauntlet
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton speaks during a press conference in Melbourne yesterday (left). Hamilton's helmet is also seen (inset).

By Ian Ransom / Reuters

MELBOURNE: Three-times world champion Lewis Hamilton put Mercedes on top of the timesheets in free practice at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Friday, leaving his Formula One rivals with plenty to ponder before the race weekend.

Hamilton led new team mate Valtteri Bottas in a Mercedes one-two in the first session and raised the pace in the second to be comfortably quicker than Ferrari's second-fastest Sebastian Vettel on a cloudy day at Albert Park.

The Briton's fastest lap in the second session of one minute 23.62 seconds was more than half a second clear of four-times world champion Vettel, who edged Bottas into third.

Vettel's 2007 championship-winning team mate Kimi Raikkonen was fourth fastest in the final session, improving on his fifth placing earlier.

The first session was largely incident-free but a number of drivers suffered problems later, with Renault driver Jolyon Palmer having a particularly tough day.

Blighted by a seal problem in FP1, Palmer's second session ended quickly as he skidded out at turn 16 and slammed into a barrier, scattering debris on the track and raising a red flag until his wrecked car was winched off.

Felipe Massa's Williams car stopped half an hour into the second session.

Red Bull drivers Dan Ricciardo and Max Verstappen dropped down the timesheets to fifth and sixth fastest in the second session.

The overall speed of the new cars was impressive, many over four seconds faster per lap compared to the corresponding sessions at last year's race.

Three-times F1 champion Hamilton would have been pleased to put down an early marker ahead of his new team mate Bottas, who replaced retired champion Nico Rosberg. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)