MELBOURNE – Ferrari’s promising start to the Fomula One season continued on Friday as the glamour team dominated free practice at the Australian Grand Prix but there was more gloom for struggling Mercedes at a revamped Albert Park.
Ferrari’s championship leader Charles Leclerc topped the timesheets with a lap of one minute, 18.978 in second free practice after being second to team mate Carlos Sainz in the first.
However, Red Bull showed they will be nipping at their heels this weekend with world champion Max Verstappen splitting the Ferraris in the second session, 0.245 seconds adrift of Leclerc.
The Dutchman was fourth quickest in the first session.
There were some concerns for Ferrari, with both Leclerc and Sainz wrestling with their cars bouncing, or ‘porpoising’, down the sweeping new run of shallow corners where drivers hit high speed heading into turns nine and 10 at Albert Park.
“A bit of a harder Friday on my side today,” said Leclerc.
“There’s still quite a bit of work to do. I don’t think anybody really put a lap together today.
“We need to do another step forward.”
Mercedes are no strangers to porpoising, with their new-look W13 car battling this season in the wake of major aerodynamic rule changes this year.
After disappointing results and performance in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, they remained well off the pace on Friday with George Russell 11th quickest in the second session, more than 1.2 seconds adrift of Leclerc.
His seven-times championship-winning team mate Hamilton was 13th fastest and had a skid into gravel.
“We made some changes going into P2 (second free practice),” said Briton Hamilton, seventh fastest in the first session.
“P2 ended up being a bit harder for me. I don’t know, it’s just a tricky car.”
Twice world champion Fernando Alonso surprised by briefly topping the timesheets for Alpine before finishing fourth fastest in the second session, one ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
Two years after the race was scrapped due to COVID-19, the drivers struggled to get to grips with changes at the lakeside circuit, with fewer corners and wider turns making it a different proposition to the old lay-out.
Red flags came out in both sessions as cars left debris on the resurfaced track, and a number skidded into the gravel.
Four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel, who missed the first two races after a positive COVID-19 test, had a forgettable return to the track but gave fans a few laughs.
After posting the 13th quickest lap in first free practice, his Aston Martin lost power and ground to a halt 15 minutes before the end of the session, with smoke billowing out of the rear.
The German grabbed a fire extinguisher from a track marshal and gave his car a spray to put out the fire.
He later delighted fans by riding back to the team garage on a scooter, prompting an investigation by stewards for entering the track without permission.
That was the last fans saw of Vettel, who did not return for the second session. The team confirmed his car’s power unit would need to be changed.
It was the second red flag of the earlier session, with Perez forcing a halt by leaving some body-work debris on the track.
IN PHOTO: Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (left) and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez talk to the media ahead of the Australian Grand Prix REUTERS/Loren Elliott