SPIELBERG BEI KNITTELFELD, June 20- Formula One leaders Mercedes showed they were undaunted by a new track Friday, dominating the first practice sessions ahead of Sunday’s returning Austrian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton set the fastest lap of the day at one minute and 9.542 seconds, finishing 0.377 seconds ahead of teammate and current championship leader Nico Rosberg in the second practice session.
In the morning, it was Rosberg who had led the field ahead of Hamilton around the 4.3-kilometre Red Bull Ring track.
The two Mercedes drivers were the only ones to dip below the 1min 10sec mark, showing they were at ease on the historic Spielberg track, despite this being their first F1 outing on it.
The last time Spielberg hosted a Formula One event was in 2003 so Friday’s free practice was the drivers’ first real opportunity to get to know the track and gather information ahead of Sunday’s race.
Prior experience indeed seemed to play a major role with Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Jenson Button — all of whom raced here a decade ago — clocking some of the fastest times behind Mercedes.
But drivers have insisted their initial lack of knowledge will hardly matter once the first practice sessions are done and dusted.
Ferrari’s Alonso was closest to Mercedes’s times in both sessions on Friday but still 0.928 seconds behind Hamilton in his fastest lap.
Felipe Massa was fourth and fifth fastest.
Red Bull meanwhile struggled despite racing at home, with four-time champion Sebastian Vettel and Canadian Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo setting just the sixth and eighth fastest times, over 1.2 seconds behind Hamilton.
Even that was an improvement on the morning session, when they finished 15th and 13th.
Following Ricciardo’s victory two weeks ago — which broke Mercedes’s six-race winning streak — Red Bull were hoping to use their home advantage in Austria to narrow the gap on their archrivals.
Mercedes however still have a 119-point lead on the Austrian team in the constructors’ standings and showed on Friday that their power problems from Montreal were behind them.
“Good practice session today! Need to take this into tomorrow for qualifying,” Hamilton tweeted after the sessions.
“Already after the first few laps I was feeling comfortable and always seemed to be finding time with new lines and improvements,” he also said.
“To be as quick as I was considering others have already driven this track is a great feeling.”
But he warned he would still have to push hard both in Saturday’s qualifying and in Sunday’s race to stay ahead of Rosberg: “I’m sure he’s got some time in his pocket.”
The German meanwhile confirmed that the internal Mercedes race was still as hot as ever: “There is still some lap time to find compared to my teammate.”
“A lot of work tonight is going to be required for me to really sort everything out… My car was bouncing a lot down the straights and that continued into the braking zones. Bouncing and braking is never a good thing, so we need to look into that and try to find out what I can do better.”
But he agreed: “It was a good day. We learned a lot of things.”
One of the most dramatic scenes on Friday saw Vettel go into a spin after going wide in the last turn leading into the final straight.
He was not the only one to get caught in that tricky corner, as Ricciardo and Lotus driver Romain Grosjean also bit into the side of the track.
Caterham and Sauber meanwhile encountered serious technical problems, with Caterham driver Marcus Ericsson’s car having to be lifted off the track in the morning after it apparently “switched itself off.”
Drivers had to struggle with light rainy conditions and strong winds on Friday, meaning the third and last practice session on Saturday — when the weather is expected to clear — will be vital as race day weather is expected to be sunny.