Australian GP: Hopes raised for close battle between Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari
Silver Arrows still ahead in Friday practice for season start but Red Bull close in with Ferrari only just behind
By Pete Gill and James Galloway in Melbourne
Last Updated: 13/12/18 3:08pm
Formula 1 could be poised for a genuine three-way fight at the front in 2018 with Mercedes and Red Bull closely matched in Friday practice for the Australian GP and Ferrari not far behind.
Although world champion Lewis Hamilton topped both of Friday's track sessions for the season-opener in Melbourne, Red Bull's Max Verstappen was less than two tenths of a second behind the Mercedes on his qualifying simulation.
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"The good news about today is that Red Bull and Ferrari seem to be pretty close to Mercedes," concluded Sky F1's Martin Brundle.
"Mercedes looked to have the best car and best package in winter testing but it's not by a country mile. It does look like we have a race on our hands."
Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was a further tenth shy of Verstappen. However, it's thought that the Scuderia may be holding back some of their peak performance for Saturday's qualifying hour which begins at 6am UK time.
"It looks like it could well be Mercedes-Red Bull-Ferrari, but Ferrari tend to save a little bit for when it matters on Saturday," added Brundle.
In a further twist of intrigue, rain is forecast for Saturday but Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo will be hit with a three-place grid penalty after driving too quickly under red flag conditions.
Mercedes still ahead - but not by much?
As befits their rank of reigning world champions, Mercedes will start the new campaign as favourites for the 2018 title and nothing on Friday will have altered that impression.
Hamilton was over half a second clear of the pack in the morning session and team-mate Valtteri Bottas looked equally comfortable in the W09.
"It's been a good day," said Hamilton. "Really coming here to the first race, you have no idea what it's going to feel like. You have no idea how you're going to feel physically and how the tyres are going to react to the circuit, but we started on the right foot today.
"We got through everything we needed to."
But in a signal of their own intent to break Mercedes' recent domination, both Red Bull and Ferrari have delivered significant upgrade packages on their cars for this weekend with the RB14 looking particularly nimble around Albert Park.
"It was a positive start to the weekend so happy with that," said Verstappen. "I'm happy with how it went."
And even Hamilton, although keen to understand why Mercedes' advantage shrunk in P2, is relishing the prospect of a multi-car battle.
"It closed up a little bit in P2 in terms of the gap between the cars, but that's exciting anyway," Hamilton said. "It's more challenging for me to try and eek out a little bit more from the car.
"I've got to discover whether I've lost some performance or they've gained, but I enjoyed driving."
Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo was unable to complete his own qualy-style run because of a brief red flag interruption and injury followed insult when the Albert Park stewards subsequently found Ricciardo returned too quickly to the pits and imposed a three-place grid penalty on the local favourite.
Sebastian Vettel said Ferrari still had room for improvement after the four-time world champion failed to put together a clean fast lap.
"The car isn't where l want it to be," Vettel told Sky Sports. "I wasn't happy with the lap that I had, there is more to come. That is probably true for everyone else but I hope l can do a bigger step than the rest."
But will all bets be off if the as-it-stands dire Saturday weather forecast comes true?
"Tomorrow is going to rain as far as I know and the same on Sunday," added Hamilton. "I don't know if I've driven in the rain yet on these tyres, so it will be interesting."