Ferrari focused on Australian GP podium

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Ferrari opened 2012 merely seeking points with a car that was seriously inferior to their rivals. Team boss Stefano Domenicali at least took home fifth-place points for Fernando Alonso’s efforts last year in Australia.

This year, he thinks Ferrari is capable of a podium.

“Unless someone else has done an exceptional job, I’m convinced that Ferrari will be in the battle to the end,” he said. “A podium in Australia would be a good base on which to build the kind of successes we need.”

If not an outright pace-setter, the 2013 Ferrari F138 has been quicker in testing and is undoubtedly ahead of where it was a year ago. Domenicali seems bullish given the stability in the regulations from 2012 to 2013, and with the aerodynamic improvements made to the car this year.

“What are the factors that have convinced me that Ferrari has made a step forward?” he said. “The new business structure, the working methods, the modifications to the equipment that we have used to work on this car, the consistency of the results compared with our targets and what we saw in the recent tests – these all seem to tell us that we are on the right path at last compared to the past.”

Alonso’s battling a podium drought in Australia. He hasn’t finished in the top three there since the 2007 race, when he finished second in his debut race for McLaren ahead of then-series debutante Lewis Hamilton.

He won his first start for Ferrari at Bahrain in 2010, but has not yet finished better than fourth for Ferrari in Melbourne in three starts.

Felipe Massa, who no doubt needs to improve his form at the start of the year, has also struggled at Australia. He joined the team in 2006 and has one podium (third in 2010) and four retirements in seven Australian Grand Prix starts with Ferrari.

Hamilton leads damp first USGP practice at COTA, Hartley debuts

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Lewis Hamilton continued his impressive Formula 1 record at the Circuit of The Americas by topping opening practice for the United States Grand Prix on Friday for Mercedes.

A four-time winner of the USGP at COTA, Hamilton set the pace in damp conditions in first practice after rain hit the Austin area in the lead-up to the start of the session.

After initially venturing out on intermediate tires, Hamilton made the switch to super-softs at the halfway point in FP1, ultimately posting a fastest time of 1:36.335.

Hamilton’s time saw him finish over half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who he could beat to the F1 drivers’ championship at COTA this weekend should results go his way.

Mercedes got two cars into the top three as Valtteri Bottas wound up third in the second W08 car, six-tenths back from Hamilton, while Max Verstappen ended FP1 fourth for Red Bull.

Felipe Massa led Williams into the top 10 with an impressive lap en route to fifth, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vandoorne was left to lead McLaren’s charge after a hydraulic leak sidelined Fernando Alonso for much of the session, limiting the Spaniard to just four laps in total.

Force India managed to get both its drivers up into the top 10 as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez finished eighth and ninth respectively, edging out Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. who was P10 in his first appearance for the team.

Brendon Hartley enjoyed his first run-out in Toro Rosso’s STR12 car ahead of his grand prix debut on Sunday, taking P14 overall.

The New Zealander had not driven an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 2012, but put in a solid first display in practice, even though his race hopes are set to be hindered by a grid penalty.

Second practice for the United States Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET today.