Mercedes sets early pace at Australian Grand Prix practice

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Mercedes sets early pace at Australian Grand Prix practice
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain and Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany, right, laugh during a drivers' press conference at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Thursday, March 22, 2018. The first race of the 2018 seasons is on Sunday. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Mercedes sent an early signal that it could again be the team to beat in Formula One this season, setting the swiftest times in the first practice session at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Friday.

On a bright, clear day, defending world champion Lewis Hamilton completed the 5.303-kilometer (3.295-mile) Albert Park circuit in 1 minute, 24.026 seconds, a full half-second ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in second.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen posted the third-fastest time of the practice session at 1:24.771, followed closely behind by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel in fourth and fifth, respectively.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo trailed the leaders in sixth place, with a fastest lap of 1:25.063.

Friday’s first practice times, however, didn’t offer a complete picture of where the top teams are in terms of speed. Ferrari didn’t make use of its ultrasoft tires during the session, while Red Bull set its fastest times on the supersoft compounds.

McLaren’s new season started off with the same misfortunes that have dogged it in recent years, as both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne missed much of the practice session with an exhaust issue in their cars.

Alonso, however, finally set a lap time with less than 20 minutes remaining and eventually improved to a solid eighth place, 1.87 seconds behind Hamilton. Vandoorne was just behind him in 10th place.

The drivers in the middle of the pack after Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari were as tightly grouped as expected with just a second separating Romain Grosjean of Haas in seventh place and Sergio Perez of Force India in 16th position.