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Mercedes boss Wolff: Hamilton in a league of his own

Lewis Hamilton hailed his perfect start to the new Formula One season yesterday, after he completed a dominant practice double and laid down an ominous marker to his rivals ahead of the Australian Grand Prix.

Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel exchanged verbal volleys in Melbourne on Thursday as they failed to agree on which driver-team combination should be considered the favourites, following changes to the sport's technical regulations.

The consensus in the paddock was that Ferrari, led by four-time champion Vettel and starved of championship glory for a decade, held the advantage following a promising eight days of pre-season testing in Barcelona.

However, Hamilton's blistering pace round Albert Park yesterday would appear to point to the contrary.

Indeed, Britain's triple world champion, who is bidding to reclaim the crown he lost to then-teammate Nico Rosberg last year, finished both sessions an eye-watering half-a-second clear of his rivals.

Hamilton's best effort of one minute and 23.620 seconds was 0.547sec faster than Vettel (1:24.167) in the second session, with Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish driver hired to replace Rosberg following his shock retirement, marginally slower.

Kimi Raikkonen was fourth fastest, with the Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen fifth and sixth.

GOOD FORM

"Hamilton is in a league of his own at the moment," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said.

"His one-lap pace was really good and he took the ultrasofts for 17 laps and was stable. I'm happy."

"I'm super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect," Hamilton said.

"We've shown good form so far on both the long and short runs, and we got every lap done that we wanted to.

"The tyres performed really well today too. I'll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race."

Hamilton's time was more than three seconds faster than his best lap in last year's corresponding free practice in Melbourne.

Bottas slotted smoothly into the Mercedes team environment with a best lap of 1:24.176.

"I definitely feel like I can make a step forward tomorrow. It'll be a busy evening for us, looking through all the data to see where we can improve, but it's a reasonable start," Bottas said. - WIRE SERVICES

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