The 2019 FIA Formula1 World Championship got underway today in Melbourne, with the first two free practice sessions fot the Formula 1 Rolex Australian Grand Prix 2019. The action got underway watched by a crow of 84,500 who filled the grandstands at the Albert Park Circuit - ten thousand up on last year and a record Friday crowd since the race moved to the capital of the state of Victoria in 1996.
However, despite the fine weather and sunny skies, a clound still hung over the paddock, following the sudden and unexpected death of Charlie Whiting, the FIA Director of Formula 1, who passed away yesterday morning here in Melbourne. All the teams paid tribute to a man who had spent almost hist entire working life in the F1 paddock. Others to speak of their sence of loss were FIA President Jean Todt and the Chairman and CEO of Formula 1, Chase Carey, who made an emotional statement when he met the press this afternoon.
The to 90 minute sessons deliverd contrasting results. The first one produced amazingly close times between the top drivers, along the lines of what had happend at the end of winter testing in Barcelona. The top five, made up of both Mercedes, both Ferraris and Max Verstappen's Red Bull, were separated by just 267 thousandths of a second. Lewis Hamilton was quickes in 1:23,599 beating Sebastian Vettel by a mere 38 thousandths. The German's ne Ferrari team-mate, Charles Leclerc was third, 74 thousandths down on the reigning world champion, followed by Verstappen for Aston Martin Red Bull Racing with a 1:23.792. Rounding of the top five in the other Mercedes AMG Petronans Motorsport was Valtteri Bottas, who posted a 1:23,866.
In the second session, the two Mercedes were still closely marched; Hamilton again fastest in 1:22.600, beating Bottas by just 48 thousandths. However, this time the pursuers ware a bit futher back, led by the to Honda-powered Red Bulls, with Verstappen 8 tenths down and Pierre Gasly a further 42 thousandths. Sebastian Vettel was the best of the Ferraris, fifth in 1:23.473. If this Friday session were to decide the grid, then the German would find himself alongside his team-mate from the previous four years, Kimi Raikkonen. Now driving for Alfa Romeo, the Finn was sixth in 1:23,572.
Vettel's current team-mate, the Monegasque Lesclerc, finished up ninth in 1:23.754, tucked in behind the new Renault pairing of local hero Daniel Ricciardo, eighth in 1:23,644 and Germany's Nico Hulkenberg, seventh in 1:23,574.
Does all this mean that Mercedes is hot favourite to take first win of the season? It's to early to say. More then ever before, Friday's results should not be relied on as accurate picture, even if the Silver Arrows look really competitive n all conditions and with all tyre compounds.
If was not the most straightforward of days for this year's tree rookie drivers, especially the second session. Alexander Albon was seventeenth in the Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda with a time of 1:24,675, followed by Lando Norris for the McLaren F1 Team (1:24,733) and George Russell who posted a 1:26.453, Robert Kubica was last in 1:26.655. Nevertheless, this was a specjal day for the Polish driver, as it marked his return to Formula 1 after an eight years absence.