Honours even in first skirmish of title duel

Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen engaged in the first round of their fight for the 2008 World Championship in Melbourne's Albert Park yesterday, and emerged with the honours pretty much even as they were separated by just a 10th of a second after the first two practice sessions. Raikkonen, the reigning world champion, took his Ferrari round in 1min 26.461secs in the morning, on a track that was still "green" and slippery. Hamilton was second.

When the 40C temperatures were supplemented by a strong breeze in the afternoon, Hamilton was the fastest with 1min 26.559secs, with Raikkonen sixth. The indications are that McLaren and Ferrari will be evenly matched this season. Their respective team-mates, Felipe Massa and Heikki Kovalainen, backed them strongly. Massa was third overall with 1min 26.640secs, Kovalainen fourth with 1min 26.683secs.

"It's great to be back racing and being here in Melbourne where I started my Formula One career only a year ago," Hamilton said. "It's always a special feeling to go out of the garage for the first time in practice at the start of a new season. There was some good progress with the car, and we made the best use of the ever-improving track conditions. However, our main opposition looks strong, but it's still too early to tell exactly where we are in comparison."

Raikkonen was less happy. "The car was good in the morning," the Finn said, "but I was not happy with the set-up this afternoon as the conditions were changing all the time as the track got grippier. We have some work to do overnight."

With electronic driver aids such as traction control and engine braking now banned, there was more evidence of cars sliding around, and rookie Nelson Piquet Jnr caused the morning session to be stopped briefly after spinning his Renault. He finished the day 19th, 1.2secs slower than team-mate Fernando Alonso.

Besides the Ferraris and McLarens, the stars were the Red Bulls of Mark Webber, who finished second in the afternoon on 1min 27.473secs after being fastest for a long time, and David Coulthard, who had problems in the morning before setting fifth fastest lap in the afternoon. "We lost time in the first session due to a gearbox problem, so we had a lot of ground to make up, which is frustrating after our strong reliability during winter testing," the Scot said. "We had a busy programme to complete, but we managed to get through it and make up some time."

Behind the scenes, argument continued to rage over the desirability of renewing the contract for the grand prix when it expires in three years' time. Opinion is divided; supporters argue that the race is good for the local economy, while critics say Bernie Ecclestone's latest financial demands, allied to a call for a 7pm floodlit event, are unrealistic.

McLaren have terminated the employment contract of Mike Coughlan, the disgraced chief designer who was at the centre of last year's "Stepneygate" spy scandal in which he was found guilty of handling Ferrari intellectual property. He has been suspended from his role since police discovered stolen Ferrari documents in his house in Bramley last July.

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