Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel set the pace on the first day of the season in Melbourne. The German was the only driver to set a time under 1m 26s and his best time was set on the third lap on his supersoft tyres, having been forced to abort the first lap on the final sector due to traffic. This suggests that there was more to come.
Vettel’s Red Bull team mate Mark Webber was second, with Nico Rosberg third for Mercedes. However Rosberg ended the session walking back to the paddock after a gearbox problem stopped his car on track.
Mercedes had problems on Lewis Hamilton’s car as well; the new recruit also walked back in after driving into a gravel trap after part of the floor broke.
The Red Bull also looked strong on long runs on both types of tyres, confirming that their performance at the final Barcelona test, where they tried many new things, was not an act of desperation, but a sign of confidence that they would have a good car for the start of the season and could afford to look at future developments.
How far ahead they are we will learn over the next 48 hours, although rain is forecast for qualifying.
Other indications from today are that the Mercedes looks fast in qualifying trim, while the Lotus and Ferrari look consistent on the long runs. Lotus’ race pace could well be one of the stories of Sunday afternoon; Kimi Raikkonen’s 14 lap run was impressive at the end of the second session. Both Lotus cars finished in the top five.
After all kinds of dire predictions about tyre degradation, today suggested that althoiugh there is significant degradation, the drivers will probably need to stop two or three times on Sunday; the front runners may find three stops faster.
It looks like the game for the drivers starting on supersoft will be to pit early, between laps 5 and 8 and get onto the medium tyre for the rest of the race. This will offer opportunities for drivers who qualify just outside the top ten, to start on the medium tyre.
Jenson Button and Sergio Perez may be among that number; the McLaren lacks rear grip and also seems to be jumpy over the bumps. Jenson Button looked dejected after the second practice session and questioned whether he would manage to get into the top ten in qualifying.
“Clearly, we’re not as quick as we’d like to be, so our task now is to work hard to find out why our car is like it is, particularly in terms of ride and downforce,” said Button.
“Our short runs weren’t particularly encouraging, to be honest. We’re a couple of seconds off the pace, by the looks of things, and that’s always going to be disappointing for a team as successful as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX, Melbourne, Free Practice
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m25.908 33 laps
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m26.172s + 0.264 31
3. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m26.322s + 0.414 26
4. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m26.361s + 0.453 37
5. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m26.680s + 0.772 30
6. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m26.748s + 0.840 35
7. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m26.772s + 0.864 28
8. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m26.855s + 0.947 32
9. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m27.435s + 1.527 34
10. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1m28.187s + 2.279 34
11. Jenson Button McLaren 1m28.294s + 2.386 30
12. Paul di Resta Force India 1m28.311s + 2.403 37
13. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m28.566s + 2.658 32
14. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m28.627s + 2.719 31
15. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m28.772s + 2.864 33
16. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m28.852s + 2.944 36
17. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m28.968s + 3.060 35
18. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m29.386s + 3.478 38
19. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m29.696s + 3.788 30
20. Charles Pic Caterham 1m30.165s + 4.257 37
21. Max Chilton Marussia 1m30.600s + 4.692 34
22. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m32.450s + 6.542 11