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Lewis Hamilton hits ground running with practice double as F1 returns in Austria

Lewis Hamilton hits ground running with practice double as F1 returns in Austria
© Reuters
The delayed campaign finally got under way at Spielberg's Red Bull Ring on Friday.

Lewis Hamilton kicked off his world championship defence in emphatic fashion by completing a practice double for 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 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 in both practice sessions.

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

The 35-year-old finished clear two tenths clear of Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas. No other driver was within half-a-second of the Briton.

Racing Point's Sergio Perez was third, 0.6 sec slower than Hamilton, with Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel fourth and Daniel Ricciardo fifth for Renault.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who could prove Hamilton's closest contender for the championship, finished third in the morning running, but was only eighth in the day's concluding session, almost one second off the pace.

Mercedes, who have ditched their traditional silver livery for black in a defiant anti-racism message, confirmed they are using their controversial Dual-Axis Steering (DAS) system here.

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 his machine's set-up.

Although 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, they could yet face a protest, with Red Bull questioning its legality.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff wore a visor on the pit wall 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.

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

Ferrari are running the same 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.

Vettel, who could be entering the final year of his career after being dropped by Ferrari for 2021, finished 0.657 sec slower than Hamilton, with team-mate Charles Leclerc in ninth almost a second back.

British driver Lando Norris was an encouraging sixth for McLaren, eight tenths off the pace, with compatriot George Russell 18th of the 20 runners in his Williams.

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