Lewis Hamilton’s quick off the mark in Austria

Lewis Hamilton kicked off his world championship defence in typical fashion by setting the fastest time in first practice ahead of the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.

The delayed campaign finally got under way at Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring on Friday, three-and-a-half months after the doomed Australian Grand Prix was cancelled and 215 days since the final competitive action in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.

It marks the longest break in Formula One history after this season’s calendar was torn up following the Covid-19 pandemic.

But there was a familiar name at the top of the time charts in Austria, as Hamilton – this year bidding to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world championships – set a blistering pace.

Austria F1 GP Auto Racing
Lewis Hamilton impressed in practice ahead of Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix (AP)

The 35-year-old Mercedes driver finished a third of a second clear of team-mate Valtteri Bottas, with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen in third, 0.6 seconds off the pace.

Mercedes, who have ditched their traditional silver livery for black this term in the fight against racism, confirmed they are using their controversial Dual-Axis System (DAS).

The device, which they first unveiled at testing in February, allows Hamilton to pull his steering wheel towards him, narrowing the alignment of the front wheels on his Mercedes and increasing his straight-line speed.  He can also push the wheel away before cornering to improve the car’s set-up.

And the early evidence suggests that the concept will enable the sport’s all-conquering team to begin yet another campaign as the team to beat as they go in search of a seventh consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship.

The leading contenders for F1 glory in 2020
Valtteri Bottas was not far behind his team-mate (PA)

Team principal Toto Wolff was wearing a face visor in the Mercedes garage as the sport operates under unprecedented measures during the coronavirus crisis.

Face masks are mandatory, while teams are operating in mini-bubbles to ensure a positive Covid-19 test will not close the show as it did in Melbourne back in March. There were no fans at the circuit.

It was McLaren’s withdrawal – after one of their team members contracted, and later recovered, from the virus, – which set the chain in motion for the event to be called off.

The British team will have been pleased here to see Carlos Sainz fourth in the order, with team-mate Lando Norris in sixth. Racing Point’s Sergio Perez spilt the pair in fifth.

Austria F1 GP Auto Racing
The stands will remain empty in Austria (AP)

Ferrari are running the car which proved to be off the pace in testing before they introduce their updated machine at the scheduled third round in Hungary later this month.

Charles Leclerc was only 10th here, an eye-watering 1.1 seconds behind Hamilton, with Sebastian Vettel even further back in 12th. The four-time world champion could be entering the final year of his career if he is unable to find a seat for 2021 after being dropped by Ferrari.

The second running of the weekend begins later on Friday afternoon.

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