Lewis Hamilton’s day could scarcely have got off to a worse start as the all-new Formula One season finally got under way officially here in Melbourne.
At the start of the first of two practice sessions for tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix, the pre-season favourite’s Mercedes rolled to a halt after only 12 minutes.
It was the sort of embarrassment that had been expected from many cars after the teams all encountered reliability issues during winter testing in Spain and Bahrain. But to the surprise of many it turned out to be one of only few such glitches on a day that showcased the excellence of the sport’s technological brains.
Even Hamilton’s problem turned out to be minor – a sensor calibration failure caused the car to shut its systems down as a safety measure. Though he lost 90 minutes of valuable running, he bounced back strongly in the second session to set the day’s fastest time, 0.157 seconds ahead of team-mate Nico Rosberg.
“It really was a day of two halves today,” Hamilton said. “While it was disappointing not to get any track time this morning, these little hiccups are going to happen with the new cars and we’ll have to get used to that.
“It felt like I was on the back foot from there but then we got up to pace quite quickly in FP2 and found the balance relatively fast. I feel quite comfortable in the car so overall it’s a positive start but we need to look at the data now and understand where we are.
“We got a nice foundation for the weekend in the second session today so hopefully we can build on that in FP3 tomorrow afternoon and then see where we are in qualifying.”
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso said he was happy with his start after he had been fastest in the first session and chased the Mercedes in the second. But the big surprise of the day was the pace and reliability of the Red Bulls, after all their well-publicised problems in testing. Sebastian Vettel was able to set the fourth best time, albeit seven-tenths of a second down on Hamilton, and new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was sixth as they amassed 115 laps between them.
“It’s a big relief, a lot of work went into this,” Vettel said. “Neither of us had big problems today, the cars were running and the balance felt very good. Friday times are not worth a lot but it is better to be closer to the top rather than somewhere lost in the back. In terms of speed we know there is a lot more to come but so far it feels very good.”
There was also encouragement for Jenson Button, second fastest for McLaren in the first session, fifth overall in the second.
“We had a good day, and I’m reasonably happy with the way things went for us. We are in better shape than we were in the tests,” Button said as he faces his first race since the death of his father.
Williams under-performed after their speed in testing had raised expectations, but after Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa were only eighth and 12th the team said they expected better performance today.
Mercedes head Toto Wolff countered suggestions that the flatulent note of the new turbocharged hybrid V6 engines was a disappointment to fans. “Well if you like the sound of engines let’s go back to V10 and V12, let’s not do any hybrid technology,” he said. “This is the modern technology, this is where road cars go. Downsizing is the motto and I think we just need to accept the formula has changed.”