Lewis Hamilton hailed the perfect start to his new Formula 1 season after he completed a dominant practice double and laid down an ominous marker to his rivals ahead of the Australian Grand Prix.
On Thursday, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel failed to agree on which driver-team combination should be considered the favourites heading into a new era following changes to the sport’s technical regulations.
The consensus in the paddock was that Ferrari, led by four-time champion Vettel and starved of championship glory for a decade, held the advantage following a promising eight days of pre-season testing in Barcelona.
However, Hamilton’s blistering pace here round Albert Park would appear to point to the contrary.
Indeed Britain’s triple world champion, who is bidding to reclaim the crown he lost to bitter rival and team-mate Nico Rosberg last year, finished both sessions an eye-watering half-a-second clear of his rivals.
Hamilton’s best effort of 1 min 23.620 secs was 0.547 faster than Vettel in the second session, with Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish driver hired to replace Rosberg following his shock retirement, marginally slower.
Kimi Raikkonen was fourth fastest, with the Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen fifth and sixth.
“It is a wonderful feeling coming into a new era of Formula 1 to have a car that is so strong and I’m super happy to be back, particularly after a first day like that,” beamed Hamilton.
“It was 99 per cent perfect.
“After struggling with some issues in Barcelona we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here.
“What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be.
“We were optimistic and hopeful that we would be at the front, but the car felt night and day as to how it did in the final days of testing so that was a relief to all of us.
“Ferrari are still right there with us and Red Bull have picked up a lot of pace.
“We have got to stay on our toes, but I think we are making the right steps in the right direction.”
While there is only so much that can be gauged from practice, with drivers operating varying fuel levels, the theory that this year’s wider, faster, and more aggressive looking cars would suddenly shake up the order and bring a dramatic halt to Mercedes’s dominance is now under significant scrutiny.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team have won 51 of the last 59 races and sealed three consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships following an unprecedented reign of success.
Thirty-two-year-old Hamilton will be delighted with his opening salvo of the year as he attempts to become the first British driver in Formula 1 history to win four titles. Ferrari will have hoped to be closer.
Elsewhere, McLaren arrived in Australia off the back of a catastrophic winter of testing plagued by a slow and unreliable Honda engine.
However, the British team will be mildly encouraged after the opening day of practice, with Fernando Alonso 12th in the order.
His new team-mate, Stoffel Vandoorne, was further back in 17th.
This year’s faster cars are a greater physical proposition for the drivers and Briton Jolyon Palmer was the day’s biggest casualty after he spun his Renault and crashed into the wall at the final corner.
Palmer, now in his second season with Renault, damaged his pride and his car, with his team facing a major repair job to get his car ready for Saturday’s qualifying.
Meanwhile, Dutch teenager Max Verstappen is wrestling with challenges off the track – on PlayStation game FIFA 17.
“I like to play the ultimate team option so you can buy players and select your own side,” Verstappen enthused with all the gusto of an ordinary computer-loving 19-year-old, and not one of his sport’s brightest young stars.
“They update the carts every week with new players so you try to buy them and you get coins for winning matches.
“I don’t play the racing games. I play people all over the world at FIFA and they would not know it is me because my name is completely different online.”
While many 17-year-olds prepare for university, Verstappen was already making waves in Formula 1.
He controversially made his debut in 2015 – some said he was too young – but a year later he became the sport’s youngest winner.
He also holds records for the youngest driver to score points, finish on the podium and set a fastest lap.