Alonso sets early pace in Melbourne

14/03/2014
NEWS STORY

Ahead of today's first free practice session the air temperature is 36 degrees C, while the track temperature is 22 degrees. Tyres available are medium and soft.

Amongst the myriad of changes that have been introduced this year - far too many in our humble opinion - there have been changes to the practice sessions also, however, they are unlikely to make in impact in these opening races. In particular we mean no third drivers... though it is hoped the teams will take advantage of the extra set of tyres that should ensure running in the first half hour.

After all the talk of Mercedes heading into the season as favourites there is already drama, as the German team has been forced to change Lewis Hamilton's engine. The Brackley squad, which starts this weekend as hot favourites following its pre-season form, identified a fault in one of the ancillary systems late on Thursday night which forced it to swap the unit.

However, as the engine had not left the garage Hamilton will not incur a penalty, nor will the engine count as one of the five allocated for use during the season.

Shortly after the lights go green, Alonso gets the session underway, followed by Sutil, Magnussen, Ericsson and Button.

More and more drivers pour onto the track, though few of them are Renault powered, all but Sutil and Vergne the only drivers staying out for a second lap.

Further drama for Hamilton, his car stops on track with smoke emanating from the back. Less than a lap into the session the hot favourite is out.

As the TV cameras focus on an understandably shocked Mercedes garage, Kvyat heads down the pitlane. Just over ten minutes into the session, all but Vettel, Chilton, Grosjean and Maldonado have made an appearance.

Ricciardo and Magnussen are back on track, the Australian going on to post the first time of the day (season), crossing the line at 1:37.290. Moments later Magnussen posts 37.762 as Ricciardo improves to 35.188.

More drivers take to the track and more times are posted, as Ricciardo raises the bar with a 34.600, Vergne goes second ahead of Magnussen, Rosberg. Shortly after, Alonso posts 33.127 to take the top spot only to be demoted by Rosberg and his 32.784.

A big twitch for Alonso in T4, the Spaniard getting the full 2014 'torquey' experience.

Shortly after Ricciardo has an even bigger moment in T12 whilst Perez gets very much out of shape in T3.

Alonso retakes the top spot with a 32.588.

After half-an-hour, it's: Alonso, Rosberg, Ricciardo, Vergne, Hulkenberg, Magnussen, Bottas, Perez, Kvyat and Button.

While Hamilton appears to be the only retirement, Caterham is also having problems with Ericsson's session over with what is thought to be an electrical issue and Kobayashi suffering a problem with his fuel system.

A 32.893 sees Button improve to third. In the Mercedes garage the team awaits the return of Hamilton's car.

Approaching half-time, only eleven drivers have posted times, of those only the two Toro Rosso drivers are running Renault power units. Vettel and the two Lotus drivers haven't even completed an installation lap.

Despite the talk of engine noise not being too badly affected by the rule changes, fact is you can hear the tyres squealing for the first time in ages. Indeed, Mat Coch reports the TV helicopters are drowning out the sound of the cars.

Having cleared the fact that he can talk over the radio, Button reveals that he is having an issue with his brakes locking and overheating rear tyres.

As Ricciardo complains that he is struggling with the front, teammate Vettel finally heads down the pitlane.

No sooner has Vergne gone off at T1 than teammate Kvyat does exactly the same... the Russian telling his team just in case they hadn't noticed.

As Alonso and Vergne (again) run wide in T1, Sauber reports that it is removing the gearbox on Gutierrez' car. Vergne, clearly having brake issues, says he's not going to push.

As for Hamilton, Mercedes reports: "An oil pressure alarm led to a precautionary engine shutdown. Cause to be investigated when car returns."

Heading back into his pit, Chilton gets it wrong and clouts a trolley. Ouch!

Vettel begins a run of five timed laps. His first timed laps sees him go thirteenth with a 34.593. Next time around he improves to eighth (32.974).

The TV cameras cut to Maldonado who is being strapped into his car, are we about to see one of the Lotus drivers make an appearance?

With just over 15 minutes remaining, it's: Alonso, Button, Massa, Bottas, Ricciardo, Rosberg, Magnussen, Vettel, Raikkonen, Vergne, Hulkenberg, Perez, Kvyat, Gutierrez, Sutil and Chilton.

"I can't find my lap time on the steering wheel," complains Button. Thank god he's not relying on Bernie's live timing.

As the session winds to a close drivers are looking ahead to Sunday, running on heavy fuel loads. As ever, no sign of the soft rubber which should make an appearance later today.

As Raikkonen runs wide in T1, Alonso and Rosberg perform practice starts at the end of the pitlane, very little opportunity to perform these pre-season.

Maldonado heads down the pitlane with around ten minutes remaining. One of six drivers still to post a time.

Far too early to draw any worthwhile conclusions but third and fourth for Williams looks promising. As does 24 laps for Ricciardo.

Maldonado heads back to the pits the Venezuelan having had a problem and run through the kitty litter at T14. As he cruises back to the pits, where several mechanics are waiting for him, he appears to have lost power. Indeed, replay shows some worrying smoke in the Lotus cockpit. Let's not forget the team suffered a number of fires in Bahrain.

Massa is the latest driver to be caught out at T1, the Brazilian recovering well.

As the chequered flag is waved, thereby bringing the session to a close, there's a big trip through the gravel for Vergne at T3.

Alonso remains quickest, ahead of Button, Bottas, Massa, Ricciardo, Rosberg, Vettel, Magnussen, Raikkonen and Vergne.

Hulkenberg is eleventh, ahead of Perez, Kvyat, Gutierrez, Sutil, Bianchi and Chilton.

No times from Ericsson, Hamilton, Kobayashi, Maldonado or Grosjean.

Check out our Friday gallery, here.

Chris Balfe

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Published: 14/03/2014
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