As Formula 1 launched into a completely new season in Melbourne, it was more of the same for Lewis Hamilton, after he ended up topping both Friday practice sessions and taking a dominant pole position ahead of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.
Mercedes looked dominant in Friday’s FP1 as they cruised to a 1-2 finish, seven tenths clear of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. However, it was a little different during FP2, the most representative and important practice session of the weekend.
In that session, Hamilton was only a tenth clear of Verstappen’s second-placed Red Bull. In the end, the top four – Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas & Raikkonen – were covered by less than three tenths, suggesting that minuscule margins separated the ‘big three’ of Formula 1.
“Everyone seems to be pretty close,” commented Daniel Ricciardo after FP2. Lewis Hamilton echoed that, saying he thought it was “exciting” to see the gap closing. Vettel noticed the same thing too, stating, “It looks like we are close.”
But, if you look deeper into the long run pace of the big three, Hamilton’s advantage in the Mercedes seems to increase. Data analyzed and collated by Green Flag F1 concluded that Lewis Hamilton’s long run simulation on ultrasoft tyres, reminiscent of race conditions, was the second quickest of all drivers, only slower than Daniel Ricciardo by just less than two tenths.
“The tyres definitely didn’t seem to have the same issue that we had in Barcelona where they were blistering,” Hamilton said after FP2, “so it felt a lot more normal.”
However, two factors can discredit the pace of Ricciardo on the ultrasoft: tyre life and number of laps. Firstly, Ricciardo’s tyres had far less wear than anyone else’s because the red flag left him unable to complete an ultrasoft qualifying simulation earlier in the session.
When Ricciardo did complete his long run ultrasoft simulation, however, he only did five fast laps compared to Hamilton’s eight. Less laps point toward less fuel and a lesser number of laps to average, which generally should suggest a lower average lap time overall.
With those two factors considered, it would suggest Hamilton is actually closer, and if not quicker, than Ricciardo on the ultrasofts in a race simulation. That would make him the quickest driver on a tyre that most drivers will use during the race, if it stays dry.
Mark Hughes, an expert pundit at Motorsport Magazine, agreed with this conclusion in his Friday recap, writing, “there remains an underlying suspicion that Mercedes has this plenty covered.” He would later go onto state, “The Silver Arrows remain the overwhelming favourites.”
This is only helped by Hamilton’s second long run simulation of FP2, where he completed six laps on the supersoft tyre. He recorded an average lap time of 1.28.008s, which was nearly a full second ahead of the only other competitive supersoft runner, Kimi Raikkonen.
Unfortunately, all other competitive runners elected to run with the soft tyre, which appeared to give similar performance as the supersofts. Hamilton’s average was only about a tenth quicker than the quickest soft runner, Sebastian Vettel.
“All three compounds appear to be viable options for the race strategy,” commented Mario Isola of Pirelli. Mark Hughes disagreed with this, arguing the ultrasofts and softs will be the race tyres because “the supersoft appeared actually to be slower than the soft even over a single lap.”
Hamilton’s timings seem to discredit Hughes’ claim, though, as his fastest lap on the supersofts was a 1:27.602s, whereas Vettel’s quickest soft tyre time was just 1:27.971s. Although the gap is not huge – the supers certainly still seem to be a viable option, as Isola suggested.
It remains to be seen whether Hamilton will run the supersofts during the race. His team mate, Valtteri Bottas, completed a long run simulation on softs and was practically equal to the quickest average of Vettel at just 0.077s behind. Bottas also completed the fastest overall lap time on the softs.
“In second practice the car felt a lot better but there’s still more to unlock,” Bottas admitted.
All of these timings, however, have a slight risk becoming completely irrelevant during Sunday’s Grand Prix because of weather. Rain was originally forecast, but it cleared late Saturday afternoon after affecting most of FP3.
“It’s going to rain tomorrow and on Sunday as far as I’m aware,” Hamilton commented after FP2, “so that’ll be interesting.”
Hamilton heads into the race with pole position secured, and as the defending Drivers World Champion, after winning 2017’s title. Whether his form will carry over from last season remains to be seen.
The indisputable fact is that he has the tools to complete a victory on Sunday, when the Australian Grand Prix gets underway at 4:10pm local time.
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