MELBOURNE, Australia — Lewis Hamilton maintained his place at the top of the timesheets after practice two in Australia to ensure the opening day of the 2018 season belonged to Mercedes, but some impressive Red Bull pace has the world champions locked in a tight battle.

Hamilton was 0.551s clear of the field in the first practice session of the Australian Grand Prix with a time of 1:24.026 before lowering that benchmark in the afternoon to 1:23.931 on the ultra-soft tyre. The two-time winner in Australia was just 0.127s ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who improved significantly in the second session. Not only was Verstappen quick on the ultra-soft tyre but he also impressed on the soft compound where he managed to get within 0.016s of Hamilton’s best super-soft lap.

Valtteri Bottas was unable to secure a second one-two finish of the day for the Silver Arrows, finishing 0.101s behind Verstappen. It wasn’t an ideal session for the Finn who took an excursion through the gravel at Turn 4 in the opening minutes after getting into a tangle with a slow moving Kimi Raikkonen. The incident saw the pair summoned to the stewards.

Ferrari bolted the ultra-soft tyres on for the first time in FP2 but weren’t quite able to unlock Mercedes’ pace. Raikkonen again finished ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel with a time of 1:24.215, the German 0.520s adrift of Hamilton.

Romain Grosjean continued to demonstrate Haas’ rapid development by slotting into seventh, just 0.717s behind Hamilton’s time and almost half a second ahead of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. The Spaniard was able to log 27 laps in the afternoon after an exhaust issue had kept him in the garage for much of FP1.

Kevin Magnussen, in the second Haas, finished ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne who rounded out the top ten.

Renault slipped outside the top 10 with Carlos Sainz P11 and Nico Hulkenberg P13, they were split by Force India’s Sergio Perez who shaved over a second from his best lap in FP1 despite spending the first 25 minutes of the session in the garage.

Williams’ struggles continued as Lance Stroll could only manage to find the 14th quickest time with teammate Sergey Sirotkin 18th. Stroll’s car also slowed to a halt on the track after the chequered flag fell, meaning he did not make it back to the pits. Esteban Ocon was 15th in the second Force India ahead of the Toro Rossos and Saubers.

The session was earlier red flagged for five minutes after a timing wire came loose on the start-finish line and when the track was switched back to green, many teams looked to gather long run data. With persistent rain expected in Melbourne on Saturday it’s likely this is the last dry running we’ll see until race day.

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