MELBOURNE • Lewis Hamilton was hailed as being "in a league of his own" yesterday as he burned off his rivals in the year's opening practice sessions at the Australian Grand Prix.
The three-time world champion bossed the field and held a half-second gap over Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel and his new Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the afternoon session.
The Briton followed up his field-leading fastest lap of 1min 24.220secs in the morning run with a blistering 1:23.620 in the late afternoon. It was around one-tenth of a second off Vettel's Albert Park circuit record of 1:23.529, posted for Red Bull in qualifying ahead of his 2011 race victory.
"Hamilton is in a league of his own at the moment," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. "His one-lap pace was really good and he took the ultrasofts for 17 laps and was stable. I'm happy."
Ferrari were expected to press Hamilton and the Mercedes team after producing superior times in pre-season testing in Spain, but on the evidence of the opening two sessions Hamilton is again the driver to beat in tomorrow's season-opener.
"I'm super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect," Hamilton said. "We've shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tyres performed really well today too."
His time was more than three seconds faster than his best lap in last year's corresponding free practice.
Finland's Bottas slotted smoothly into the Mercedes team environment with a best lap of 1:24.176.
"I definitely feel like I can make a step forward tomorrow. It'll be a busy evening for us looking through all the data to see where we can improve, but it's a reasonable start," he said.
Ferrari improved markedly on their opening practice, with Vettel unleashing the second best lap time in FP2 with 1:24.167 while team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was fourth with 1:24.525.
"We've made a huge leap forward compared to last season, that is for sure," Vettel said.
"Still, I am not totally satisfied. The balance doesn't feel 100 per cent right."
The German has been trying to downplay the high expectations surrounding F1's fallen giants, which retired two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen believes Ferrari could pay a heavy price if they disappoint in Melbourne.
"I believe that the whole Ferrari team has put enormous pressure on themselves," said the 1998 and 1999 champion with McLaren at a promotional event.
"If they don't perform in the first race as well as their tests have indicated, then it will be a terrible disappointment for the whole team.
"The effect can be damaging and lead to hasty decisions."
Ferrari failed to win a race last year and their last title was the 2008 constructors' championship.
Red Bull are also expected to challenge Mercedes' dominance this term and Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were over a second behind Hamilton and half a second off Vettel's Ferrari.
"We can still get more out of it. This morning was promising but we tried a few things this afternoon and they didn't work as much as we'd like," said Ricciardo, bidding to become the race's first Australian winner in 37 years.
"Mercedes sure are quick but it's more Lewis than Valtteri. Pole (position) may be a stretch but we're in that next little group."
The second session was stopped after Renault's Jolyon Palmer crashed, losing the rear of his car on the last corner and spinning into the barriers.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX
Practice session 3 (10.55am) & qualifying (1.30pm) - Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208.