Max Verstappen, eager to reassert his dominance after watching his teammate clinch victory last time out in Saudi Arabia, was back atop the timesheets at the end of the first practice session for the 2023 Australian Grand Prix.
The Dutchman posted a fastest time of 1:18.790 on the soft tyre, nearly half a second clear of his nearest challenger which, surprisingly, was the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton.
Perhaps it is another indication of just how drastic the Brackley-based team’s loss of form has been that the name of the seven-time world champion ahead of Sergio Perez’s could be considered a shock.
Hamilton was well down for the majority of the session but a last-gasp run on the softs saw him get within 0.433s of his Dutch rival before Logan Sargeant brought out the red flag with four minutes left.
After an encouraging win in Saudi Arabia, Perez will have been disappointed not to get within half a second of his teammate in third, especially after talking up his world championship hopes in the build-up.
Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc were on pace with the Mexican in fourth and fifth respectively, meaning there is hope we could yet see a three-way scrap for pole.
Carlos Sainz was sixth, a few hundredths ahead of Lando Norris in what was an improved showing for McLaren.
Pierre Gasly was eighth for Alpine, well clear of his teammate in 15th, while George Russell and Lance Stroll rounded out the top 10.
Hope for Mercedes and Hamilton?
Ahead of the race in Melbourne, Mercedes technical director Mike Elliott was optimistic the team could rejoin the title fight despite a disappointing start to the 2023 Formula 1 season.
That was in stark contrast to Hamilton, who has estimated the W14 is around a second a lap slower than the RB19 in race trim, and said it would take at least a year to bridge the gap to Red Bull.
So, is there anything to this improved showing for team and driver?
In truth, despite snatching second place, the Mercedes still looked a handful around the streets of Albert Park, particularly at Turns 9 and 10.
It’s early days but the rear end was seen regularly stepping out of line in the high-speed corners, which won’t inspire confidence for either driver.
Still work to be done and plenty of it.