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Hamilton tops Vettel in season’s first practice

MELBOURNE (AFP) – World champion Lewis Hamilton made a mockery of his claim that Ferrari would be half a second quicker at the Australian Grand Prix by clocking the fastest time in opening practice Friday.

The Mercedes ace powered round the Albert Park circuit under clear skies with a best time of one minute 23.599 seconds among his 26 laps.

Arch-rival Sebastian Vettel, who has won in Melbourne for the past two years, was second fastest on 1:23.637, fractionally ahead of new Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was fourth, Hamilton’s partner Valtteri Bottas fifth and Kimi Raikkonen sixth in his Alfa Romeo.

The 34-year-old Hamilton is gunning for his sixth world title this year, and third in a row, to close in on Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven.

Much had been made of his insistence after pre-season testing in Barcelona that Ferrari were up to half a second faster, but he quickly showed that Mercedes, as expected, are well and truly in the hunt.

On medium compound tyres, the Briton, who has triumphed twice in Melbourne, in 2008 and 2015, among his 73 wins in 229 Grand Prix, clocked his fastest time with 30 minutes left of the 90 minute session.

It was relatively incident-free practice, which was red flagged briefly when Toro Rosso new boy Alexander Albon lost his front wing in a spin and crash at turn 2.

“Come slowly. You have no front wing, come very slowly,” his team advised him on the driver radio.

Bottas also spun late in the session, then nearly hit the wall as he turned the car around.

Meanwhile, Renault’s Niko Hulkenberg missed most of the session after an electronic error, but managed to squeeze in 11 late laps.

It was a frustrating morning for Poland’s Robert Kubica, in his first Formula One drive since his right arm was partially severed in a horror rallying accident eight years ago.

He managed 25 laps with a fastest time of just 1:27.914 for Williams, which finished bottom of the constructors championship last year. 

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