Lewis Hamilton tops time-sheets in season-opening Australian Grand Prix practice

Lewis Hamilton began the defence of his Formula One world championship in emphatic style by completing a practice double at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

F1 roared back into life at a sun-drenched Albert Park in Melbourne with Hamilton odds-on to follow up his triumph from last season by winning a fifth crown.

And the British driver, also bidding to become only the third man in F1 history to win the title more than four times, delivered on his tag as favourite by sending out an ominous warning to his rivals.

The 33-year-old finished more than half a second clear of the field in opening practice, before soaring back to the top of the time-sheets on Friday afternoon.

There was some encouragement for the chasing pack, however, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen only 0.127 seconds adrift of Hamilton's best time in the second session.

Hamilton's Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen were further back in third and fourth, while Sebastian Vettel was half a second shy of his rival in fifth.

But it is Hamilton, after vowing to dominate the opening grand prix of the new campaign, who holds the advantage heading into the opening qualifying session of the season on Saturday.

McLaren's pre-season campaign was blighted by a series of reliability problems, and the British team endured a slow start to their weekend after further mechanical issues.

The switch from Honda to Renault power is set to usher in a new dawn for McLaren, but it appeared a case of history repeating after Fernando Alonso spent the majority of the opening 90 minutes redundant in the McLaren garage following an exhaust issue.

The 36-year-old Spaniard finally emerged with a little more than 20 minutes to go, and set the eighth fastest time. He was eighth in the second session, too, 1.3 seconds slower than Hamilton.

Alonso's team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne, who was also absent from most of the morning running following a similar exhaust problem, enjoyed a trouble-free afternoon and finished 10th, much to the relief of the McLaren hierarchy.

Elsewhere, home favourite Daniel Ricciardo was only seventh in the order following an issue with his front suspension, while American team Haas built on their impressive pre-season form with Romain Grosjean sixth and Kevin Magnussen ninth.

The temporary track around the Albert Park lake bathed in sunshine on Friday, but the remainder of the weekend could be interrupted by unpredictable weather, with showers forecast to hit during both qualifying and the race.

- PA

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