Hamilton heads Mercedes 1-2 in first German GP practice

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Lewis Hamilton has given Mercedes the perfect start to its home grand prix weekend by finishing quickest in the first practice session at the Nurburgring this morning, with Nico Rosberg underlining the pace of the Silver Arrows by coming home P2 as Red Bull struggled to produce such pace, finishing over one second behind Hamilton at the top.

The session began in a rather quiet manner following the statement issued by Pirelli and the FIA earlier today, causing teams to be particularly cautious during the first few laps on the new tires. However, they stuck to their usual programme, completing a series of installation laps early on. This did not go to plan for Fernando Alonso, with the Ferrari coming to a halt on the entry to turn five during his outlap. Paul di Resta also had difficulties, bickering with his engineer over the radio, but it was not until around 30 minutes of the session had been completed that the first benchmark time was set by Jenson Button, eventually improving to a lap of 1:33.545 on the medium compound.

McLaren’s spell at the top of the timesheets was not to last long as Red Bull and Mercedes soon hit the front. Mark Webber, who won at the Nurburgring back in 2009, led from teammate Sebastian Vettel before the Silver Arrows went fastest via the last winner at this track, Lewis Hamilton. He and Nico Rosberg then exchanged fastest times with just 0.011 seconds separating them at one point, but Mercedes enjoyed a lead of over a second from Webber in P3. Other impressive times came from Adrian Sutil (P4) and Felipe Massa (P6), with both drivers looking to build on the points that they scored last time out at Silverstone.

However, it was not fun and games for all of the field. Max Chilton, Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez all had lock-ups heading into the tight first corner, whilst Rodolfo Gonzalez (deputizing for Jules Bianchi in FP1) received a €1000 fine for speeding in the pit lane.

The final set of runs saw Vettel and Grosjean both improving as Hamilton became another victim of the first corner, using the full extent of the run-off area, but he remained secure in top spot as the heavy fuel runs prevented any real challenge to his supremacy.

Mercedes will be delighted to have kicked off their home grand prix in such dominant fashion, and the sizeable gap to their rivals will make this session all the more pleasing. The question that will be asked this afternoon is whether or not the drivers feel safe racing on the prototype Pirelli tires, with the GPDA stepping up its warning last night.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.