Just when it seemed as though five-time world champions Mercedes had been caught off balance, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas laid down a statement of intent on Friday in Australia.
Reigning drivers’ champion Hamilton opened his 2019 season by topping both the FP1 and FP2 timesheet, matching his feat from 12 months ago.
However, what was more impressive was the margin by which Hamilton and team-mate Bottas occupied the top two spots on the FP2 timesheet, with next nearest challenger Max Verstappen a full 0.8s adrift.
Mercedes Friday dominance has followed a pre-season in which the team appeared to be struggling to come to terms with Formula 1’s new regulations for 2019 – wider front-wings and less complex bargeboards are among a number of changes introduced to theoretically allow for closer racing.
Trialling two radically different concepts during testing, Mercedes failed to make an impression at the top of the timesheets, while Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel lauded an “unbelievable” start to testing as a compliant SF90 launched Ferrari into the position of pre-season favourites.
Fifth and ninth place on the FP2 timesheet for Ferrari served as a curveball and left those in the paddock pondering who is deploying sandbags and who might have let already let them go.
Here’s five things we learned on Friday ahead of the Australian Grand Prix;
Mercedes is in the game
It would be easy to look at the timesheet on day one in Melbourne and cite that Mercedes has simply unloaded the sandbags. In reality, that’s not the full story.
Lewis Hamilton’s 1m22.600s was an impressive benchmark time and served to demonstrate that the W10 is fundamentally a fast car, despite some grim predictions after testing.
As a result, Hamilton’s claim on the final day of testing that Mercedes was 0.5s behind Ferrari heading to Australia looks to have been a serious overestimation. At the same time, it’s doubtful that he was simply bluffing in full knowledge that his 2019 car was a world-beater.
Ferrari did not show its hand today, as evidenced by the fact that Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo all split the two Ferraris on the FP2 timesheet. Similarly, Red Bull are too close to the midfield for the 0.8s margin to Mercedes to bare any weight.
The gap between Mercedes and its rivals will close on Saturday. The question is, by how much?
Leclerc can match Vettel
Today has served as more of a confirmation of what was already a widely held opinion – Ferrari newcomer Charles Leclerc has the pace to match team-mate Sebastian Vettel.
In FP1, the 2017 Formula 2 champion was just 0.036s down on Vettel’s best time and while the margin between the two grew during the short run evaluations in the afternoon session, Leclerc’s race pace stood out.
On the soft tyre, Leclerc’s average lap time was a 1m28.9 over a 15 lap stint. Across a similar stint on the same compound, Vettel recorded a 1m29.0 average.
A spin at the end of day after climbing the kerb at Turn 4 was the only blot on an otherwise inch perfect day for Leclerc.
As anticipated, the intra-team battle at Ferrari is likely to be closely contested.
Williams faces parts shortage
At this point in the season, most teams will have at least some concerns over the volume of spare parts. However, after a tumultuous winter, Williams’ concerns are turning into real problems.
The team finished bottom of both the FP1 and FP2 timesheets, with Robert Kubica finishing the afternoon session a full four seconds adrift of Hamilton’s benchmark pace.
His running was “compromised” as a result of having to drive a damaged car. Seemingly sustaining broken components after riding Albert Park’s kerbs, the team did not have sufficient parts to replace the damaged ones.
“We try to rebuild the parts and fix the parts because unfortunately we don’t have a lot of spares,” Kubica admitted.
“The car is difficult to drive and if you face a number of damages it’s even more difficult.”
Based on the pace displayed by Kubica and rookie team-mate George Russell, Williams biggest worry on Saturday is not that it will qualify on the back row of the grid, but simply ensuring that it will be within the 107 percent pace required to be allowed to start the race on Sunday.
Raikkonen the midfield dark horse
Kimi Raikkonen was one of the stars of Friday in Melbourne. Finishing sixth on the FP2 timesheet, the Finn posted very impressive long-run pace on the soft tyre and was one of only two drivers outside the top three teams to record consistent 1m28s across several laps.
His rookie team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi endured a tricky first day in comparison, failing to match Raikkonen’s race-run speed and ending up a full 0.7s behind during the qualifying simulations.
Alfa Romeo has delivered a fast package but at present, the Iceman is alone in managing to unlock it. That could change as Giovinazzi grows into what is only his third full weekend in F1.
Reliability concerns sour fast first day for Renault
Nico Hulkenberg was the driver to join Raikkonen in the 1m28s club during the long-run evaluations, as Renault demonstrated the pace which had many pundits declaring the French marque to be best of the rest after testing.
However, the pace was soured by issues which, at a time when teams up and down the grid have delivered near unprecedented reliability, does stand out.
Hulkenberg’s electrical gremlins robbed him of over an hour in the morning session. Daniel Ricciardo lost 20 minutes in the afternoon not through a mechanical fault, but through a “strange” seatbelt issue.
If Renault can keep both cars running, a double-points finish seems highly likely on Friday’s evidence.