x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Formula One: Sebastian Vettel sets the pace at the Australian Grand Prix

Triple world champion is fastest in both practice sessions as McLaren struggle and teams prepare for rainy weather during qualifying, writes Gary Meenaghan

Sebastian Vettel was the fastest man in Melbourne.
Sebastian Vettel was the fastest man in Melbourne.

MELBOURNE // Even over the roaring engines, the groans from the team garages were audible.

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing’s seasoned duo, finished the opening day of the new season comfortably top of the timesheets at Albert Park, suggesting talk of a closely fought championship might prove to be wishful thinking.

Christian Horner’s marque have claimed the past three constructors’ titles, yet an erratic pre-season in Spain had provided hope to the challengers.

Ferrari, McLaren-Mercedes, Lotus and Mercedes-GP all arrived in Australia with quiet belief they could capitalise on Red Bull’s mixed winter. Yet, it quickly became clear on Friday that Vettel has named his car wisely this season: Hungry Heidi had simply been hiding her true potential.

The three-time world champion posted a fastest lap that proved 0.4 seconds quicker than anybody other than his teammate, Webber.

More ominously though, the 24-year-old German achieved it on worn tyres, suggesting that in optimum conditions, he could go even faster – possibly by up to a half-second quicker than he did.

“Overall, it was a good day for us,” Vettel said. “It was pretty seamless and there was no trouble with the car.

“After all the mileage of testing, it was fun to be out there – this circuit doesn’t get easier, it’s a good challenge.”

If the paddock is feeling deflated, it can take heart from Melbourne’s unpredictable weather and the changing racing conditions it creates.

While promo girls handed out sunscreen to spectators on Friday, Saturday is expected to provide some autumnal showers. Consequently, Vettel said, there is still plenty of work to be done.

“The weather should be quite changeable and, as we can’t predict how much that will impact the tyres and car balance, we need to be ready to change things,” he said. “It was a good day and the balance was good, but we need to be ready for what’s coming up.”

Webber, competing in his home race this weekend for the 12th time, is still hunting a first win in front of his compatriots. And finishing 0.15s ahead of third-placed Nico Rosberg of Mercedes suggests he is perfectly placed to mount a challenge on Saturday.

“It was not a bad day,” said Webber, 36, whose best result at his home race is fifth place.

“It was nice to have a bit of sun on the circuit after Barcelona, where we had pretty overcast conditions.

“We had to correlate a lot of information from Europe and that went pretty well, but we still have a huge amount to go through tonight and we’re expecting a bit of overcast stuff, so we need to be ready for that.”

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari’s ferocious driver who pushed Vettel to the final race of the season last year in the hunt for the 2012 title, said he was pleased with his car’s performance, but concedes his nemesis remains the obvious favourite.

“I’m not expecting any major surprises here – we already knew we were not the quickest and that was confirmed,” he said.

“The car responds well, but we know there is still much to do if we want to fight with the very best.”

Fortunately for the Spaniard, his team do not require as much improvement as former employers McLaren-Mercedes, who appeared drastically off the pace.

Pre-season results had indicated Jenson Button and Sergio Perez might struggle early in the year, and yesterday confirmed it as they finished 11th and 13th.

While Sam Michael, McLaren’s sporting director, remained optimistic, stressing the length of the season, team principal Martin Whitmarsh was less positive.

“It was one of the hardest days I can recall,” he said. “We were lacking overall grip, consistency, we had understeer, poor ride ... A very difficult day and one where we didn’t go forward.”

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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