Thu | Aug 13, 2020

Hamilton off well in practice

Published:Saturday | July 4, 2020 | 12:22 AM
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain in the first practice session at the Red Bull Ring racetrack in Spielberg, Austria yesterday.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain in the first practice session at the Red Bull Ring racetrack in Spielberg, Austria yesterday.

SPIELBERG, Austria (AP):

World champion Lewis Hamilton picked up where he left off on the first day of the Formula One (F1) season, setting the fastest times in the first two practices for the Austrian Grand Prix yesterday.

He last drove competitively on December 1 when he dominated and won the 2019 finale at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. 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-kilometre (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.

IMPROVED SPEED

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 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 per cent sure that we’ll be struggling more than last year.”