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Mercedes, Haas Get Off To Fast Starts In Australia

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 23 2018

Romain Grosjean’s practice times for Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix were among the top 10 on Friday. (Photo courtesy of Haas F1)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Led appropriately enough by Lewis Hamilton, the 2018 FIA Formula One World Championship roared to life Friday with a pair of 90-minute free practice sessions for the Australian Grand Prix.

Hamilton, the four-time/reigning World Driving Champion from Great Britain and Mercedes AMG, posted the day’s fastest lap around the 3.295-mile/5.303-kilometer/16-turn Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit at 1-minute, 23.931-seconds, or 0.127-seconds better than Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Hamilton led FP1 at 1:24.026-seconds, 0.551-seconds quicker than Silver Arrows teammate Valtteri Bottas. The Melbourne track record of 1:22.188, set last year by Hamilton in the final round of qualifying, remained intact.

Friday’s practices marked the debut of all 2018 cars featuring the FIA-mandated “halo” frontal cockpit protection device.

Meanwhile, Romain Grosjean carried American-owned Haas F1 Team to a solid start, placing in the top-10 during both sessions. Speeds picked up and lap times dropped across the board during FP2, with Grosjean emerging as the sixth-quickest driver with a time of 1:24.648-seconds. That lap was 1.082- seconds better than his best lap in FP1 (1:25.730), good for seventh-quick.

Grosjean’s quickest time in the No. 8 Ferrari-powered VF-18 came on the 13th of his 34 laps shod on a set of Pirelli Purple ultrasoft tires during a session run under sunny conditions and ambient temperatures ranging from 77 to 84-degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s been a good day,” said Grosjean, the Frenchman who is beginning his third full season with the team owned by American industrialist Gene Haas. “I’m happy with the car and the guys did a great job getting everything ready. We had a successful winter test (at Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya in Spain), and it’s good to confirm that the car is up there on a different track and with different temperatures.

“Obviously, it’s early stages and we need to keep up the work and keep building everything. There are areas where we can improve the car but, generally, I’m very happy with how today went.”

Haas F1 teammate Kevin Magnussen advanced from 17th in FP1 to ninth after the second session with a best lap of 1:25.246-seconds. That circuit shaved 1.789-seconds off his FP1 time. Magnussen’s fast lap in the No. 20 VF-18 came on his 13th tour as well, also utilizing Pirelli’s Purple ultrasoft tire. He completed 30 laps.

“I’m fairly positive, but we still have some work to do,” said Magnussen, who is beginning his second full season with Haas F1. “I had quite a few abnormal issues today _ nothing big _ but little annoying issues with small things that were breaking. That stopped us from running as much as we’d hoped for, at least on my side.

“We got at least one run that was representative where I got to feel the car, and I was happy with the feeling. I’m looking forward to trying again tomorrow. Obviously, we don’t know what the weather’s going to do. But if it’s dry, I have a feeling we have a good package.”
Guenther Steiner, Haas F1 team principal, said Magnussen’s unidentified “small issues” were the day’s only downer.

“In the end, we came out not too bad,” Steiner said. “We have a good understanding of what we can do. We’ve got some more work to do tomorrow, but then I think everything changes a bit, because it’s supposed to be raining all day long.”

Haas, team founder and chairman, stated during a preseason interview his team needed to close the competitive gap to Scuderia Ferrari _the famed and flamboyant Italian organization with whom Haas F1 shares a power unit, gearbox and overall technical support.

One final practice session on Saturday will lead into qualifying, which consists of three rounds with the 15 fastest drivers from Q1 moving on to Q2. The 10 fastest drivers from Q2 will then advance to Q3, where they’ll battle for pole position.

Both Haas F1 drivers began FP1 on the Pirelli P Zero Red supersoft tire before transitioning to the Purple ultrasoft. Grosjean’s quick time of 1:25.730 came on his 15th lap shod on ultrasofts. He ran 24 laps while placing seventh-fastest.

Magnussen’s best time in FP1 was a 1:27.035 on his 10th lap, also set on ultrasofts. The native of Denmark ran 13 laps while posting the 17th-quickest time. Both drivers dealt with grip issues on the typically slick track surface in Melbourne, which plays host to race cars once a year.

Esteban Ocon of Force India and Lance Stroll of Williams each logged 30 laps in FP1, while Brendon Hartley of Toro Rosso completed 41 laps in the second session.

Haas F1 Team ran a total of 101 laps during the two sessions, 58 by Grosjean and 43 by Magnussen. Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix is the first of 21 races in 2018. The globetrotting schedule includes Round 18 _ the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, from Oct. 18-21.

Haas F1 Team completed its sophomore season in 2017 with a repeat and respectable eighth-place finish in the FIA constructor standings. That result outpaced the storied McLaren organization (ninth) led by two-time F1 World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso of Spain and Sauber (10th) in a battle of the mid-pack teams.

While Haas F1 failed to reach its preseason goal of 50 constructor points, the 47 earned in 2017 were 18 more than the total posted during its debut season in 2016 _when “Gene’s Team” became the first American Formula One entrant in 30 years.

That inaugural season netted 29 points, most of any new team in this millennium. When Jaguar debuted in 2000 and when Toyota came on the scene in 2002, each organization managed only two point-paying finishes during their entire first seasons for a combined total of six points.

Grosjean, who has competed in every race in the team’s history, placed 13th in the championship standings with 28 points. Magnussen finished 14th in the driver standings with 15 points in his first year with the organization.

Grosjean posted two double-point results last season _ May 28 in the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, when he finished eighth and Magnussen came home 10th _ and Oct. 8 in the Japanese Grand Prix, when Magnussen took eighth and Grosjean crossed the stripe in ninth. Haas F1 Team came away with points 11 times in 2017, more than double its amount of point-paying finishes from 2016.

Haas F1 Team is based at the same Kannapolis, N.C., campus as Haas’ championship-winning NASCAR Cup Series organization, Stewart-Haas Racing. Haas co-owns his NASCAR team with retired three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. Haas is the founder of Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool-builder in North America, and chairman of Haas F1 Team.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 23 2018
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