Hamilton: Australian GP could be start of competitive season

Mercedes British driver Lewis Hamilton greets his fans ahead of the Formula One Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne

Four-times Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel led a Ferrari 1-2 in the final free practice ahead of qualifying for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Saturday. "I think certainly we have a little bit in hand, I wasn't happy with the lap that I had and with the rhythm and the balance yet so there's more to come but I think that's probably the same for everyone else". It was such a nice lap.

Red Bull line up in fourth with Max Verstappen and eighth with Daniel Ricciardo - once applying a three-place grid penalty handed out after Friday practice - and it was a good day for Haas who end the day with Kevin Magnussen fifth and Romain Grosjean sixth. The crash did serious damage to the right side of the auto, tearing off both tires and scattering the track with debris.

"I think the auto, compared to last year, definitely made good improvements", said the 20-year-old Verstappen, who finished last season strongly with two wins and a second-place finish in his last six races. The lap time was a full second faster than the previous track record he set during qualifying at last year's Australian Grand Prix and underlined the step in performance his Mercedes team has made over the winter.

The major crash caused a lot of damage to Bottas' vehicle, much to the frustrations of Toto Wolff, who will be monitoring his driver heavily throughout the season.

The Finn's Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel was third fastest.

Hamilton attempted to soften the tension, adding: "It was a joke, dude", to which Vettel replied: "I know".

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the team was lucky the damage wasn't too extensive and that Bottas would be able to compete on Sunday.

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"From what I understand, I think Red Bull and Ferrari are very close".

Sitting next to him, Vettel chipped in: "What were you doing before then?"

But for now, the announcement which will solidify Hamilton's position as Britain's highest-earning sportsperson will have to wait as he embarks on the second instalment of his championship challenge against Vettel - and the quest to engrave his name among the sport's immortals.

"Yeah, (I'm) all good", said Bottas.

Renault's Nico Hulkenberg took a spin into the gravel in Q2 but scraped through to the final session and will start seventh, his team mate Carlos Sainz two places behind.

"We can't negotiate the position of the halo, we can't put it at the back of the vehicle so maybe it should be up to us to design the halo, just to add an element to what makes it different from the rest", the Ferrari driver said. "Going to give it our all as a team and for me as well so we'll see". His McLaren team have swapped Honda power for Renault this season after three miserable years with the Japanese manufacturer.

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