Two practice sessions of the new season have revealed some light in the pecking order, even if it is too early to conclude who’s going to be the champion. Red Bull Racing set some ominous times during second practice, doubly so when Vettel’s aborted first lap is taken into consideration. He was four tenths clear of the fastest non-Red Bull driver and there’s undoubtedly more lap time to be unlocked. Mark Webber, who perennially underachieves around the Albert Park street circuit, was comfortably second quickest. As expected, Red Bull was sandbagging over winter. The question now is whether their strong practice pace will be sustained into qualifying and over the 58 lap race.
Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus all appear to be in the ballpark. Encouragingly for Ferrari, Felipe Massa was consistently in the front group and seems to have continued his form shown at the end of 2012. Mercedes was fast and fragile, although the true test of the W04 will be over long runs. Some have been quick to believe that Lewis Hamilton has jumped ship to Mercedes at the right time, although ending his session in the gravel wasn’t hugely promising. Nonetheless he was quick, albeit on edge and frequently destined for the nearest run-off. Team-mate Nico Rosberg stopped almost simultaneously with a gearbox failure but it was an encouraging start to the season for the Silver Arrows. Over at Lotus, both Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean showed flashes of speed although long runs provided greater optimism. The question for Lotus, as in 2012, is whether they can qualify highly enough to challenge for race victories on a consistent basis.
In our season preview we said that someone was lying. Step forwards McLaren. Jenson Button, the winner last year, commented that “we’re a couple of seconds off the pace” while team Principal Martin Whitmarsh conceded that his team faces an upwards challenge. That both drivers admitted scoring points would represent a good weekend highlights the magnitude of McLaren’s task. They have the resources to fight back, but beginning a season tardily – such as in 2009 and 2011 – rarely reaps rewards. If it’s all an act and McLaren suddenly become contenders throughout the rest of the weekend, it’s certainly a peculiar approach to adopt.
The midfield runners were as to be expected. Adrian Sutil showed he’s lost none of his speed or his imminent-accident driving style during his sabbatical while former Force India man Nico Hulkenberg scraped into the top ten in his Sauber. Williams looked to be the midfield team with the most work to do as neither Pastor Maldonado nor Valtteri Bottas exuded optimism, while Toro Rosso’s Jean Eric Vergne had a couple of peculiar grassy moments on corner entry.
At the tail end of the field new Marussia recruit Jules Bianchi impressed, finishing 3.7s down on Vettel’s fastest time and 0.9s up on team-mate Max Chilton. They were split by the Caterham of Charles Pic, while the sister green machine failed to complete the session when Giedo van der Garde slid wide and got stuck in the gravel.