Predictions that Ferrari would romp away from the field in Melbourne were put on hold for at least 24 hours as Lewis Hamilton split the honours with Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen on the first day of practice for the Australian Grand Prix.
The Finn, defending F1 champion, was fastest in the first session, but Hamilton hit back by topping the second for McLaren, who marked the start of the season by finally sacking shamed designer Mike Coughlan – legal reasons had stopped the team doing so before.
RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen was fastest through much of the second session as well as the first, but suffered from set-up problems while the McLaren improved. Hamilton said: “There was some good progress with the car and we made the best use of the ever-improving track conditions.”
He added: “It’s great to be back racing and being here in Melbourne where I started my Formula 1 career only a year ago. It’s always a special feeling to go out of the garage for the first time in practice at the start of a new season. However our main opposition looks strong, but it’s still too early to tell exactly where we are in comparison. All in all a good start to the Australian Grand Prix and the season.”
Ron Dennis, who recently ended speculation that he was on the verge of stepping down as team boss, said: “Both Lewis and Heikki made solid starts to the weekend and are pleased with the balance of the car. We spent the first session just familiarising ourselves with the track as it was dirty and continued to get faster and faster.
“In the second session we started work on qualifying set-up and tyre evaluation. The strong wind today was an additional challenge for the set-up work, but we experienced no problems.”
There were worrying signs for David Coulthard at Red Bull, who had hoped last season’s mechanical gremlins were a thing of the past. He finished the first session in P13 after gearbox trouble, before rallying to P5 in the second session. Team mate Mark Webber was fifth and second in front of his home fans.
Coulthard said: “We lost time in the first session due to a gearbox problem so we had a lot of ground to make up in the second practice, which is frustrating after our strong reliability during winter testing. We had a busy programme to complete this afternoon, but we managed to get through it and make up some time.”
Honda, perhaps stung by the trouble they had last season in shaking off the challenge of junior team Super Aguri, announced they would be scaling back technical support for the minnows following their financial rescue earlier in the week.
Honda boss Nick Fry said: “We will still support them from a powertrain point of view, and give them a few bits of other technical support, but basically it’s going to be on a diminishing basis. You need to be very singular about Formula One and that’s the way our team needs to be and that’s the way Ross (Brawn) and I are going to push it,”
Fry’s drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, did manage to put some space between themselves and Super Aguri, finishing the practice session in the midfield while Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato, in a largely untested car, were rooted to the back.
Button, who posted a pair of 11th places, said: “Today has been a good day for us. We focused mainly on tyre work and getting the best out of the car in the very hot conditions. Everything went smoothly and the car feels much as it did at the Jerez test, which is pleasing. We won’t know our true relative position compared to the competition until later tomorrow, but at the moment the priority for us is focusing on our own test items and adapting the set-up to the requirements and conditions here.”
The Super Aguris managed just 14 laps and spent most of their time on the sort of basic testing that other teams carried out months ago. Davidson said: “It was a difficult Friday. We had planned a limited programme anyway, but then we had to cut short our run in the afternoon. I hope that we can get to grips with the car more tomorrow and move on from there.”
Sporting Director Graham Taylor added: “We tried to adopt a staged approach to the start of the year, attempting to tick the boxes that other teams have been able to during winter testing. Therefore in FP1, Anthony’s car undertook a full grid procedure simulation whilst Takuma’s car undertook a green flag simulation.
“We are experiencing some new car issues, as you would expect – a little overheating here and there, but otherwise the morning went to plan. Unfortunately for Anthony his running was curtailed this afternoon because we exceeded a design parameter and we once again encountered some issues with cooling, so we need to address these areas this evening to allow us to complete a few more miles tomorrow.”