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New Straits Times - - Sport -

of 1:23.529s, posted for Red Bull in qual­i­fy­ing ahead of his 2011 race vic­tory.

“Hamil­ton is in a league of his own at the mo­ment,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said.

“His one-lap pace was re­ally good and he took the ul­tra­softs for 17 laps and was sta­ble. I’m happy.”

Fer­rari were ex­pected to press Hamil­ton and the Mercedes team af­ter su­pe­rior times in pre-sea­son test­ing, but on the ev­i­dence of the open­ing two ses­sions Hamil­ton is again the driver to beat in to­mor­row’s sea­son-opener.

“I’m su­per-happy to be back in the car, par­tic­u­larly af­ter a first day like that. It was 99 per cent per­fect,” Hamil­ton said.

“We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got ev­ery lap done that we wanted to. The tyres per­formed re­ally well to­day too.

“I’ll be push­ing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Hamil­ton’s time was more than

The cars have a min­i­mum weight limit, mi­nus fuel but with driver in­cluded, which has been in­creased this sea­son. The aim is to carry as lit­tle ex­tra as pos­si­ble for max­i­mum ad­van­tage.

Perez’s French team­mate Es­te­ban Ocon said he had put on three se­conds faster than his best lap in last year’s cor­re­spond­ing free prac­tice in Mel­bourne.

Fin­land’s Bot­tas slot­ted smoothly into the Mercedes team en­vi­ron­ment with a best lap of 1:24.176.s

“I def­i­nitely feel like I can make a step for­ward. It’ll be a busy evening for us look­ing through all the data to see where we can im­prove, but it’s a rea­son­able start,” Bot­tas said.

Fer­rari im­proved markedly on their open­ing prac­tice, with Vet­tel un­leash­ing the sec­ond best lap time in FP2 with 1:24.167s while team­mate Kimi Raikko­nen was fourth with 1:24.525s.

“We (were) very happy at test­ing — times looked good, but here is where it mat­ters,” Vet­tel said.

“The car hasn’t changed much and it’s good to be back but we can still im­prove.”

The Red Bulls of Daniel Ric­cia­rdo and Max Ver­stap­pen were over a sec­ond be­hind Hamil­ton and halfa-sec­ond five ki­los of mus­cle over the win­ter, and other driv­ers re­ported sim­i­lar gains.

In past sea­sons, it was gen­er­ally felt that ev­ery five kg of ex­tra weight made the car 0.2 se­conds a lap slower — a sig­nif­i­cant amount in a sport mea­sured in off Vet­tel’s Fer­rari.

“We can still get more out of it. This morn­ing was promis­ing but we tried a few things this af­ter­noon and they didn’t work as much as we’d like,” said Ric­cia­rdo, bid­ding to be­come the race’s first Aussie win­ner in 37 years.

“Mercedes sure are quick but it’s more Lewis than Valt­teri. I think we can be up there. Pole (po­si­tion) may be a stretch but we’re in that next lit­tle group.”

Ver­stap­pen missed out on the later long runs af­ter dam­ag­ing his car’s floor when run­ning over the gravel on the exit of turn 10.

“I had a bit of un­der­steer, so went off the track and dam­aged the floor,” Ver­stap­pen said. “We tried to find a bet­ter bal­ance and we are just a bit too slow. We are where I ex­pected us to be.”

The sec­ond ses­sion was stopped af­ter a big crash for Re­nault’s Jolyon Palmer, who lost the rear of his car on the last cor­ner and spun into the bar­ri­ers.

“I’m fine,” Palmer told his team over the ra­dio. The shunt dam­aged thou­sandths of a sec­ond.

Perez said he had lost two or three ki­los since test­ing ended but ex­pected to be able to put the mus­cle back once the team were hap­pier with re­li­a­bil­ity and could take weight out of the car. Reuters the car’s rear sus­pen­sion, while the rear wing was de­tached.

Palmer missed the re­main­der of the ses­sion, in a blow to his prepa­ra­tions for the week­end race.

Brazil­ian Felipe Massa stopped his Wil­liams car at Turn 11 af­ter re­port­ing he could not en­gage gears, and walked back to the team garage.

The trou­bled McLaren team had no on-track break­downs on the open­ing day with Fer­nando Alonso fin­ish­ing in a re­spectable 12th place. AFP

Force In­dia’s Ser­gio Perez (left) and team­mate Es­te­ban Ocon be­fore the open­ing prac­tice ses­sions of the Aus­tralian Grand Prix in Mel­bourne yes­ter­day.

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