Lewis Hamilton has already delivered the faster speeds that Formula One rule changes were designed to achieve, going under the racing lap record during practice Friday for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
The three-time world champion had the fastest time in morning practice and his afternoon session time of 1 minute, 23.620 seconds was quicker than the racing mark Michael Schumacher set in winning the 2004 title at the 5.303-kilometer (3.295-mile) Albert Park Circuit.
It was only one-tenth slower than the best ever lap of Albert Park, which Sebastien Vettel set to take pole position in 2011.
“I’m super happy to be back in the car _ particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 percent perfect,” Hamilton said. “We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to.”
Ferrari driver Vettel split the Mercedes cars of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, who posted the fastest two times in the opening practice earlier Friday, with his 1:24.167 in the afternoon session.
Kimi Raikkonen’s afternoon run meant the Ferraris were second and fourth _ a reflection of their positive pre-season testing in Barcelona _ and pushed the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen back from third and fourth in the morning session to fifth and sixth in the afternoon.
Vettel was less than one-tenth of a second in front of Bottas, who replaced Nico Rosberg at Mercedes after the reigning world champion retired.
Hamilton, who won back-to-back world championships in 2014 and ’15 and narrowly lost to Rosberg last season, completed 22 laps in the morning session and 34 in the afternoon and used three tire compounds across the day.
The first practice was almost processional with the Mercedes cars followed by the two Red Bulls and the Ferraris.
Hamilton predicted ahead of the Australian GP that Ferrari would be the team to beat. He said Friday was indicative of how his rivals have improved and said qualifying on Saturday would be the first genuine test.
“We knew from FP1 that the Ferraris weren’t at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick,” Hamilton said. “We’ll see tomorrow how it really stands.”
Four-time world champion Vettel completed only 10 laps in the morning session but had 35 in the second session.
“We had a mixed day, this morning wasn’t so good but then we had a better afternoon,” Vettel said. “I think the balance of the car is not yet where we want it to be, but I’m sure we can take a step forward on that.”
Ricciardo and Verstappen, who only ran eight laps in the afternoon, were followed by Carlos Sainz of Toro Rosso, Romain Grossjean _ who drove his Haas through the gravel during the second session _ and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
The new regulations for 2017 allowed for wider tires with more grip and durability, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and were designed to increase speed. The first two sessions have confirmed that is the case among the top contenders.
Williams rookie Lance Stroll set the first time of the season, the 18-year-old Canadian momentarily on top of the time sheets after his first flying lap in an F1 Grand Prix event. He was 13th in the opening session and dropped to 16th in the second, almost three seconds off the pace.
“It feels good to just finally break the ice and do some driving,” he said. “I have to build up to it, which is what I was doing today, and still leaving a bit of a margin. There is not a lot of room for error on this track, but it is fun and so far I have really enjoyed driving it.”
His teammate Felipe Massa was seventh-quickest in the morning but slipped to 14th in the afternoon, reporting mechanical problems as he slid off and stopped on the grass on his sixth lap. The second session was only 10 minutes old when Jolyon Palmer spun his Renault rear-first into the barrier.
McLaren was in the back half of the pack, with former world champion Fernando Alonso’s 12th in the second session. The third practice is scheduled for 2 hours before the qualifying session on Saturday.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was hopeful of helping Ricciardo win on home soil, but thought the initial practice sessions had probably set the tone for the weekend.
“Being realistic, the performance we’ve seen today from Lewis, he’s the absolute favorite _ all today has done is underline that,” Horner said. “To have a home winner would be an unbelievable result (but) if you look at the pecking order at the moment _ that is a longshot.”