Lewis Hamilton expresses delight with Mercedes close to Red Bull in Australia
Hamilton also shrugs off late accident as 'one of those things'
By James Galloway and Mike Wise
Last Updated: 15/03/13 7:19pm
After the Brackley-based outfit had ended pre-season testing in Spain earlier this month as the talk of the paddock after setting the pace on the final two days of action, many observers were keen to see whether the W04 really did have genuine pace when the real action began on a grand prix weekend.
And while Friday practice, as ever, did not reveal the full picture, Mercedes's strong day-long pace appeared to confirm that their 2013 car is a vast improvement over last year's, with the team only headed on the end-of-day timesheet by World Champions Red Bull and over a second clear of Hamilton's former team, McLaren.
Although Hamilton, competing for the first time at a Grand Prix for the first time in anything other than a McLaren, only finished seventh on the Practice Two timesheet, his first sector time on his one and flying lap on the supersofts was actually quicker than Vettel's before a lock-up into Turn Nine caused the 2008 World Champion to abandon the lap.
No wonder, then, that Hamilton was able to overlook his lowly position in the timesheets, as well as his late mishap into the gravel, to happily reflect on what he told Sky Sports News was a "really good day."
"Nico [Rosberg] did a great time - I didn't really get a good time on my lap, I locked up and went wide - but generally it's been really positive," said Lewis. "A surprisingly good day and really positive."
Indeed, Hamilton appeared even more upbeat in his later press briefings, telling reporters that he took great satisfaction from being so close to Red Bull.
"The real thing is that we are competitive. I am massively excited to be up there. To be as competitive as we are today is a real plus," he said.
"It's too early to say [if a podium is possible]. Red Bull are quick, the Ferraris are quick, and Lotus are up there. I'm not sure what is happening with the McLarens but I'm sure they will fix it because they are a brilliant team.
"We're just going to take it one step at a time. But it has been a really positive day. To be that close to the Red Bull is hugely satisfying."
Having been met with widespread incredulity at the time it was announced, Hamilton's decision to leave McLaren for Mercedes has now assumed an altogether different perspective. Not only have Mercedes recruited McLaren's most prized asset, but they also appear to have taken the Woking outfit's position at the front of the grid.
The situation may reverse again over the course of the season - after all, 2012 began with Mercedes seemingly poised to join the F1 elite before quickly falling back into the midfield pack - but McLaren's teething troubles with their MP4-28 are proving far more problematic than expected.
Martin Whitmarsh described his team's struggles during both practice sessions as "one of the hardest days I can recall" and though the team launched their revolutionary charger with the expectation that it would be a slow burner, their lack of pace around Albert Park was far worse than predicted.
Hamilton's buoyancy couldn't have contrasted more starkly - or, perhaps, more painfully.
The 2008 World Champion's Friday wasn't without setbacks of its own, however, as both Hamilton and Rosberg suffered late-afternoon reliability problems - although they were still not enough to knock Hamilton's cheery demeanour.
While Rosberg's W04 ground to a halt with a gearbox problem, damage to the floor on Hamilton's car pitched him off the road under braking and into a small impact with the tyre wall.
Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff afterwards insisted the problems on both cars had been "minor" and Hamilton himself brushed off the implications of the accident.
"I had a separation of the front splitter so the splitter was pushed right up underneath and touching the top of the chassis, or underneath the chassis, and I lost a lot of front end. I went into Turn Six, turned in and nothing really happened so I went straight on.
"The guys said they saw someone in the pitlane and were about to pull me in, but it was too late, I had already gone off. Those things happen."
The 28-year-old did, however, later add that he initially thought he had been at fault in the incident.
"I thought to myself 'what an idiot', but when I got back and they explained that I had lost a lot of downforce, I was [saying] 'thank god it wasn't just me'. And thankfully nothing is damaged," he added.