Why Hamilton’s headline pace might flatter to deceive

So Mercedes may look to have the edge on the field once again, and while I hear you neutrals – or fans of any team bar Mercedes for that matter – bemoaning another season of dull continuity, it might still be too early to call.

Hamilton may have been half a second clear of the field today, but with the Englishman surely desperate to unsettle the newbee on the other side of the garage early on, and with Vettel indicating that Ferrari have plenty more performance up their sleeve, I’m not ready to declare Hamilton the 2017 World Champion just yet.

Lewis Hamilton Oz Paddock

If the only F1 you’ve consumed this morning has been the FP2 timesheet, firstly you’ve missed out on a fascinating first day of track action, and secondly, you would be forgiven for thinking that Mercedes have turned up and stamped their authority on the 2017 season.

In reality, Friday’s lap-times are merely part of a wider story. Sure, Hamilton and Mercedes have thrown the gauntlet down today, in a manner which was unexpected following a winter in which the suspected improved pace of their rivals has been the main talking point.

It’s important to remember, however, how crucial today was for the triple World Champion. Hamilton entered his first two sessions with a new opponent in the form of Valtteri Bottas, occupying the seat across the garage. Laying a marker down to the Finn and asserting a notion of superiority must have been on Hamilton’s to-do list.

Finishing over half a second ahead of Bottas has certainly allowed Hamilton to put a tick next to that particular bullet point.

In addition, Hamilton has struggled to an extent during the winter, highlighting before leaving Barcelona that he did not have the W08 in the setup “sweet spot” heading to Melbourne. Another reason why the Brit needed to hit the ground running today. The earlier he could put his winter worries behind him, the better.

As his performances in Azerbaijan and Singapore last season demonstrated, the Englishman is far more likely to succeed on a Sunday if his preparation is smooth. A tricky Friday can spiral into a disastrous weekend.

Ferrari and Red Bull were chasing balance all day according to the drivers. They clearly have time in their pockets and while Hamilton will have undoubtedly kept some of Mercedes’ winter sandbags in tow, Ferrari and Red Bull might have more latent speed to deploy than today’s pacesetter.

Vettel certainly seemed unfazed by Hamilton’s headline times. “The balance wasn’t yet where I want it to be, so I think we can still do a decent step forward,” he said in an interview featured on Autosport.

“This morning was not so good, we had some small issues that caught me out. But the team is doing well. I think we have a lot of things that we can improve.” Ferrari and Vettel have continued their winter mandate of ‘keeping a lid on things,’ and following the number of false dawns they have endured in past seasons, that is a sensible strategy.

Is Hamilton the favourite for the weekend? Absolutely, following an imperious day.

Is it a foregone conclusion? Absolutely not.

Ferrari and even Red Bull are in-range of spoiling Hamilton’s weekend.


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