F1’s world champions and driver start fastest in Austria; But are Racing Point about to challenge for supremacy behind? Watch Austrian GP qualifying on Sky Sports F1 at 2pm on Saturday
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 03/07/20 8:15pm
Lewis Hamilton believes it is too early to speculate about any early-season Mercedes advantage after a dominant start to the season in Friday practice in Austria.
But while Mercedes’ double one-two on the opening day certainly confirmed their pre-season status of favourites, the practice timesheets also appeared to serve as further evidence that Racing Point have made a bigger step forward for 2020 than any team.
Only Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas were quicker than Sergio Perez around the Red Bull Ring on Friday.
“It was a good day. I think we’ve definitely shown that the car has great potential,” said Perez to Sky Sports F1.
“I think the people back home in the factory have done a tremendous job. I’m really excited for the year to start.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us but things are looking good. Hopefully tomorrow we’re still up there when everyone puts it together and we see where everyone is.”
Team-mate Lance Stroll was seventh fastest and the Canadian, starting his fourth season of F1, said the RP20 was the best car he had driven around the Red Bull Ring “by a long way”.
Can anyone catch Mercedes?
On the evidence of the first two practice sessions, it would already be a surprise to see anyone but Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas on pole position on Saturday in one of the newly black-liveried Mercedes cars.
Hamilton topped both sessions from Bottas – by 0.356s and 0.197s respectively – and admitted it felt “great to be back” having not driven the W11 in 18 weeks.
“What’s positive is the car was feeling good today and definitely feels like in general compared to last year we have continued to improve the car,” said Hamilton, who has only won once in six attempts in Austria.
“So that’s a massive positive.”
Asked about where Mercedes saw the main threat coming from at this stage, Hamilton said: “It’s difficult to say. It’s definitely looking good out there [for Mercedes] but you can never take too much from practice.
“If you look some of the other teams are maybe down on power modes, or up on power modes, and fuel or whatever it may be. We’ll take it with a pinch of salt and try to see if we can improve the car tonight.”
Bottas added: “We do see a threat. It’s only Friday and it’s only practice. I don’t think any team has yet put on all the performance items they have.
“I’m sure the lap times will come down tomorrow from the track [improvement] but also all the teams and all the drivers. It’s way too early to say, but it’s not too bad.”
What about hotly-tipped Red Bull?
Most observers have tipped Red Bull to pose the biggest challenge to Mercedes’ F1 supremacy at the start of the delayed season after a strong testing programme with the Honda-powered RB16.
And although Max Verstappen and Alex Albon finished eighth and 13th respectively in Friday’s second session, team boss Christian Horner said: “Where we are in the timesheet doesn’t look like where we are in reality.”
Both drivers had off-course moments and Verstappen said: “Lap times don’t really say anything because I broke my wing in the first [soft-tyre] lap. Of course there are things we can do better but it was a good day.”
Perez believes there is little to choose between the chasing pack.
“The margins are very smalls, the Ferraris, Red Bulls, Renaults, are really close,” said the Mexican.
“We will see where we really are.”
The Formula 1 season is underway on Sky Sports F1 with the Austrian GP. Sunday’s race starts at 2.10pm. Find out more & subscribe.