Hamilton back on track and up with pace

British world champion defies Melbourne downpour to finish fastest in practice

Lewis Hamilton may have apologised for his "over-exuberant" driving in the streets last night but McLaren were not complaining about his speed on the Albert Park circuit as he and team-mate Jenson Button set the day's fastest practice times, in an afternoon session during which a downpour at one stage rendered the Melbourne track a skating rink.

"We've made some improvements to our pace compared with Bahrain," Hamilton said. "The feeling over one lap is better and I feel more confident that we'll be able to attack the guys who were at the front two weeks ago.

"We'd hoped to evaluate some further changes at the end of P2 [second practice], but the track still wasn't up to full speed. Nevertheless, we feel quite comfortable with the balance of the car. I've got a car that probably feels better than I've ever had at this track."

Button agreed. "I'm reasonably pleased with the balance, and it just got better throughout the day," he said. "I've been happy since lap one this morning. It's only Friday, and we may be lighter than some of the quick cars out there, but tomorrow we'll see where we actually stand."

While the Australian Mark Webber was third fastest, the Ferraris and his Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel were nowhere, much depending on the point at which the individual car ran in the session. But Michael Schumacher had cause to be satisfied after looking more like his old self. "We learnt a lot and we could improve the set-up of our car quite reasonably," he said.

His Mercedes team principal, Ross Brawn, put the day into perspective when he said: "When there is a difference of four seconds in lap time depending on whether you are running light or heavy fuel, you have to check our brake performance and the differing fuel levels, so this was another day on which it was difficult to read true form. Tomorrow we'll find out where everyone really is."

Meanwhile, the McLaren team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, explained why the silver cars had struggled in Bahrain. "We didn't learn until late that this year they would include that extra section of the circuit," he said. "Naturally, we sent out our survey team out to do a laser scan of it and they detected the bump in turn six. But in their analysis they noted that the circuit was also very sandy there, so they decided to take that bit of information out of their simulation model. They assumed it was erroneous data.

"Of course, when we got out there for the race, the bump was real all right, and we realised that we hadn't got anything like as much downforce in that section as we should have had."

Australian Grand Prix: Practice times

Australian GP: First practice: 1 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1min 26.927sec; 2 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:27.126; 3 J Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:27.482; 4 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:27.511; 5 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1:27.686; 6 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:27.747; 7 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:27.793; 8 S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:28.014; 9 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:28.114; 10 V Liuzzi (It) Force India-Mercedes 1:28.192; 11 P Di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes 1:28.537; 12 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:28.550; 13 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:28.572; 14 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:28.683; 15 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber 1:29.465; 16 R Barrichello (Br) Williams-Cosworth 1:29.712; 17 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth 1:30.249; 18 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 1:31.588; 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 1:31.652; 20 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 1:31.654; 21 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing 1:32.831; 22 B Senna (Br) Hispania Racing F1 1:33.401; 23 K Chandhok (India) Hispania Racing F1 1:34.251; 24 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing 1:34.925. Second practice: 1 Hamilton 1:25.801; 2 Button 1:26.076; 3 Webber 1:26.248; 4 Schumacher 1:26.511; 5 Petrov 1:26.732; 6 Buemi 1:26.832; 7 Sutil 1:26.834; 8 Liuzzi 1:26.835; 9 Barrichello 1:26.904; 10 Rosberg 1:26.956; 11 Kubica 1:27.108; 12 De la Rosa 1:27.108; 13 Kobayashi 1:27.455; 14 Hulkenberg 1:27.545; 15 Alonso 1:29.025; 16 Vettel 1:29.134; 17 Massa 1:29.591; 18 Kovalainen F1 1:29.860; 19 Alguersuari 1:30.510; 20 Trulli 1:30.695; 21 Glock 1:32.117.

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