Formula One: Mercedes dominate practice in Austria

SPIELBERG BEI KNITTELFELD, Austria (AFP) - Formula One leaders Mercedes showed they were undaunted by a new track on Friday, dominating the first practice sessions ahead of Sunday's returning Austrian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton set the fastest lap of the day at 1min 9.542sec, finishing 0.377sec ahead of team-mate and current championship leader Nico Rosberg in the second practice session.

In the morning, it was Rosberg who had led the field ahead of Hamilton around the 4.3km Red Bull Ring track.

The two Mercedes drivers were the only ones to dip below the 1min 10sec mark, showing they were at ease on the historic Spielberg track, despite this being their first F1 outing on it.

The last time Spielberg hosted a Formula One event was in 2003 so Friday's free practice was the drivers' first real opportunity to get to know the track and gather information ahead of Sunday's race.

Prior experience indeed seemed to play a major role with Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Jenson Button - all of whom raced here a decade ago - clocking some of the fastest times behind Mercedes.

But drivers have insisted their initial lack of knowledge will hardly matter once the first practice sessions are done and dusted.

Ferrari's Alonso was closest to Mercedes' times in both sessions on Friday but still 0.928sec behind Hamilton in his fastest lap.

Felipe Massa was fourth and fifth fastest.

Red Bull, meanwhile, struggled despite racing at home, with four-time champion Sebastian Vettel and Canadian Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo setting just the sixth and eighth fastest times, over 1.2sec behind Hamilton.

In the morning session, they finished in just 15th and 13th place.

Following Ricciardo's win in Montreal two weeks ago - which broke Mercedes's six-race winning streak - Red Bull was hoping to use home advantage in Austria to narrow the gap on their arch-rivals.

Mercedes, however, looked like their power problems from Montreal were behind them and still have a 119-point lead on the Austrian team in the constructors' standings.

One of the most dramatic scenes on Friday saw Vettel go into a spin after going wide in the last turn leading into the final straight.

He was not the only one to get caught in that tricky corner, as Ricciardo and Lotus driver Romain Grosjean also bit into the side of the track.

The first practice day was probably most disappointing for Caterham and Sauber, whose drivers encountered serious technical problems, with Caterham's Marcus Ericsson's car even having to be lifted off the track in the morning after it apparently "switched itself off"

Drivers had to struggle with light rainy conditions and strong winds on Friday, meaning the third and last practice session on Saturday - when the weather is expected to clear - will be vital as race-day weather is expected to be sunny.