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Hamilton dominant as Mercedes put down new season marker in Melbourne

His teammate, Valteri Bottas, was close behind in a time of 1:22.648 as the German team laid down an early marker that they would be the team to beat on Sunday afternoon.

It was the 11th consecutive Friday practice session – since the second session in 2014 – that Mercedes has topped the timesheets.

The Mercedes duo were separated by only hundredths of a second, well clear of the third fastest driver Max Verstappen, the Red Bull star, who was nearly a second slower than the Mercedes duo.

But how much of an indicator this will be when qualifying gets underway on Saturday afternoon is a moot point.

Teams often use these sessions to try new programs and tweak the car’s set up to maximise its performance in race trim, rather than to make a major statement in a session that, in the end, does not count for points or anything other than bragging rights.

The most interesting team was Ferrari, who came into this weekend as the squad  regarded as the best prepared following impressive results in testing in Barcelona in February.

Sebastian Vettel had said on Thursday that he was happier with the car this year than last – when he had managed to win the race.

But in the first practice session he was unable to match Hamilton’s pace, and in the second he was behind not only the two Mercedes of Hamilton and Bottas but also the Red Bull of Pierre Gasley, who reported that his car – now powered by a Honda engine for the first time – was lacking in power on the last lap.

However, given the knowledge that they had their car in good shape before arriving in Melbourne, it’s quite likely that the Italian team was keeping its powder dry before going for broke in qualifying.

Vettel’s young teammate Charles Leclerc was fractionally slower than Vettel in the first session and not far off the four-time world champion’s pace in the second, when Vettel was fifth and Leclerc ninth. The latter had a spin at turn four late in the session as he sought to improve his time.

Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo, in his first appearance for his new team Renault, fared much better in his late afternoon second session than in his first 90-minute run.

In his first try Ricciardo was just 17th fastest, half-a-second behind teammate Nico Hulkenberg (10th).

He improved significantly for the experience, finishing his second session less than one-tenth-of-a-second behind the German, now in his third season with the French team.

Eighteen years ago, Kimi Raikkonen made his Formula One debut in a Sauber at Albert Park, showing the promise that would eventually see him become a world champion by scoring points for a sixth place.

The Finn is now one of F1’s elder statesmen, but he showed that he still has the motivation and the pace to be competitive when circumstances are right.

Raikkonen, in the Alfa Romeo, was sixth fastest in both sessions, giving every indication that he could be at the forefront in the battle of the best of the rest behind the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. His teammate Antonio Giovinazzi was seven-tenths slower than the Finn in 15th position.

There was no fairytale return for Polish driver Robert Kubica on his first drive in F1 for nine years.

Everyone knew that the Williams team would struggle to be competitive, and Kubica, one of the sport’s up-and-coming stars before being forced out of action following a horror accident, found out just how far off the pace the team will be.

Kubica’s time of 1:26.655 was more than four seconds slower than Hamilton’s. His young teammate George Russell was fractionally quicker in 1:36.453, but both men will have the job ahead of them over the rest of the weekend.

With Matt Clayton

Michael Lynch is The Age’s chief soccer reporter and also reports on motor sport and horseracing

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