SPIELBERG, Austria — Six-time champion Lewis Hamilton picked up where he left off on the first day of the Formula One season, setting the fastest times Friday in two sessions of Austrian Grand Prix practice.
He last drove competitively on Dec. 1 when he dominated and won the 2019 finale at the Abu Dhabi GP. That capped his sixth F1 title to move one behind Michael Schumacher’s record for titles, and seven behind his record of 91 race wins.
Seven months later, including a four-month postponement of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hamilton looked typically assured.
“It’s great to be back, it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It was looking good out there today.”
The British driver twice finished ahead of his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas on the 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) Red Bull Ring circuit in Spielberg nestled at the foot of the Styrian mountains in southern Austria.
Bottas was .356 seconds behind Hamilton in the damp and overcast morning run and improved to .197 back as the track dried and became warmer in the afternoon. Late in that session, however, he had to return to the pits because of a braking issue.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, winner of the last two races here, was third quickest in the first practice but slipped to eighth in the second session and encountered oversteering problems.
Ferrari struggled for speed in the morning with Charles Leclerc 10th quickest and Sebastian Vettel only 12th, but improved in the afternoon with Vettel pushing up to fourth behind Sergio Perez in third. Perez’s Racing Point team uses Mercedes engines.
Although Vettel showed good cornering speed, he was still a somewhat distant .657 seconds adrift of Hamilton’s time in the second session.
Ferrari is racing with the same car it used in preseason testing in February and has not made any upgrades, while Mercedes and other teams have.
After making a late strategy decision in terms of aerodynamic development this week, Ferrari is not upgrading its cars until the third race in Hungary, where practice starts on July 17.
Ferrari fans hopeful of a first title since Kimi Raikkonen’s triumph in 2007 may have low expectations.
Leclerc thinks the car is not even as good as last year, when he finished fourth overall and Vettel could manage only fifth place – lagging behind Hamilton by a whopping 173 points.
“It’s going to be a very, very challenging season for us,” Leclerc said. “We still have these question marks and we still have to wait for qualifying to be absolutely sure of what we say, even though we are 99% sure that we’ll be struggling more than last year.”
Raikkonen is still driving 19 years after finishing sixth on his F1 debut at the Australian GP, won by Schumacher. But the 40-year-old Finn misjudged a turn during P2 and his Alfa Romeo went into a gravel area.
There is a third and final practice Saturday ahead of qualifying.
Austria is hosting back-to-back races as part of an eight-race European swing and no spectators are allowed.
In a surreal atmosphere, with vast and empty grandstands outside, drivers have been holding their news conferences inside while sitting on chairs two meters apart and with masks on.
Media have no access to the paddock area where the teams are and no direct contact with drivers. Instead, they ask questions via video or by email. All media on site have to be tested for the coronavirus every five days.