Hamilton heads up Mercedes one-two in final Australian GP practice

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Lewis Hamilton completed a hat-trick of P1 finishes in practice for the Australian Grand Prix by topping the final session ahead of qualifying on Saturday morning at Albert Park.

Drivers were afforded their first dry running of the weekend in the 60-minute FP3, allowing Mercedes to show its true colors as Hamilton led home teammate Nico Rosberg for a one-two finish.

Ferrari hoped to build on its strong showing in testing by running Mercedes close in final practice, and although Sebastian Vettel finished the session just two-tenths behind Hamilton, the status quo appears unchanged from the end of 2015.

Mercedes bided its time before unleashing both Rosberg and Hamilton on their low fuel runs and offering the first sign of the true pace of the new W07 car.

Rosberg duly resumed normal service with his first flying lap, going six-tenths quicker than the rest of the pack to take P1 with 25 minutes remaining. Hamilton followed suit after a suspension change, slotting in to second place.

Ferrari responded by sending Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen out on the super-soft tire, with the latter splitting the soft-shod Mercedes drivers initially.

Vettel rose to P1, beating Rosberg by three-tenths of a second before Mercedes sent its drivers back out on super-softs. Rosberg beat Vettel’s time by half a tenth before Hamilton went faster still to take P1 overall, his time being good enough for top spot come the end of the session.

Rosberg retained second place ahead of Vettel at the checkered flag, while a late lap from Carlos Sainz Jr. saw him finish fourth ahead of Raikkonen and Toro Rosso teammate Max Verstappen.

Valtteri Bottas ended FP3 in seventh place for Williams ahead of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. Felipe Massa finished ninth in the second FW38 car, beating Force India’s Sergio Perez in P10.

Haas F1 Team looked to get both of its drivers out early to complete its first dry running around the Albert Park circuit, only for a run-in with Rio Haryanto in the pit lane at the start of the session to set Romain Grosjean back. Haas changed the floor on the Frenchman’s car as a precaution, and he managed to finish the session 19th. Teammate Esteban Gutierrez ended FP3 just ahead in P18.

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN from 2am ET on Saturday.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.