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Catch me if you can! World champion Lewis Hamilton shows he’s still the man to beat in Australia


Look up at the timing screens at this precise moment mid-afternoon in Melbourne and they show Lewis Hamilton’s name on top. As for his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, he was 0.297sec back. Or a little slice of eternity away.

So what? This was a snapshot at one inconsequential passage of practice for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix. Yes, but the disparity told us why Hamilton has been free to act as he did before and since arriving here in seat 1A of his Qatar Airways flight on Monday night.

He is simply dominant over every other driver in the world today. Bottas is a very good peddler, but regularly made to look like a dummy. Hamilton won 11 races last season to the Finn’s zero.

Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia

The reigning world champion enjoyed the perfect start to the new season in Melbourne

Nobody at Mercedes is going to tell such a star what to do. So, as is probably right, he has free rein to risk injury by skydiving, as he did in Qatar last weekend. And, more regrettably, nobody upbraided him when, on Thursday, he walked away from supposedly mandatory media duties without speaking to BBC Radio.

‘Lewis did not feel the conditions were suitable to continue,’ said Mercedes of their £40million-a-year man’s early exit from the interview pen. Champions, it seems, do as champions want.

Anyway, it is my belief that Hamilton will finish the 2019 season with a sixth world title.

Lewis Hamilton set the pace in the first two practice sessions ahead of the Australian GP - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia

Lewis Hamilton set the pace in the first two practice sessions ahead of the Australian GP - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia

Lewis Hamilton set the pace in the first two practice sessions ahead of the Australian GP

It may be hard work if, as pre-season testing indicated, Ferrari are quickest or if Red Bull develop apace. Then Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen come into the reckoning and we observers are in for a treat.

But even if the two rival teams are strong, there is the Hamilton factor to contend with. He is so reliably quick over one qualifying lap and races so relentlessly that even a four-time champion, Vettel, collapsed under the strain in 2018. Ferrari did not combust until the champion lit a match under them.

In the press conference at Albert Park on Friday, where the sudden death on Thursday of race director Charlie Whiting hung like a cloud, Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff extolled his driver as ‘one of the best out there’, which was actually polite understatement.

Hamilton pictured ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Valterri Bottas in the Melbourne practice - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia

Hamilton pictured ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Valterri Bottas in the Melbourne practice - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia

Hamilton pictured ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Valterri Bottas in the Melbourne practice

Was Wolff concerned about the skydiving? ‘Well, I am always worried about this kind of thing,’ he said with a smile. ‘We had a laugh last year because I couldn’t get hold of Lewis or my chief strategist and one of the race engineers — I found out they were racing motorbikes in Jerez and nobody would pick up the phone.

‘But Lewis is not an 18 or 19-year-old man anymore. He is a five-time world champion. He knows exactly what works for him and what doesn’t. These activities are not negative distractions.

‘We mustn’t be judgmental. Some people go on a meditation seminar to India. Others go skydiving. Others are out for the ladies. Let’s accept him how he is.’

Hamilton, watched from the paddock by his father Anthony, was fastest in practice, mocking any pre-season notion that the super-team of the past five years might suddenly find themselves with serious remedial work to undertake. And what else can we expect this season?

The Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was second fastest in the second practice session on Friday - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia

The Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was second fastest in the second practice session on Friday - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia

The Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was second fastest in the second practice session on Friday

First, an alarm. Formula One is hiding itself behind the curtain of paid-for TV in the UK. Only the British Grand Prix will be shown terrestrially, on Channel 4.

Chase Carey, Formula One’s chief executive, spoke of rising global viewing figures. But while reaching new audiences in distant markets is important, he should not be casual about losing mainstream media traction in the sport’s heartland. Perhaps he isn’t blasé at all, because Sky’s exclusive deal was negotiated not by ‘The Moustache’ but by his predecessor, Bernie Ecclestone.

Sky, who cover many sports outstandingly well, dedicate hours to Formula One. They have talented broadcasters and pundits, led by Martin Brundle who is the undisputed voice of the track. 

But the channel should beware of flag-waving. Scott Young, into his second season as Sky’s head of F1, is too controversy-averse. He leans to a soft and sycophantic approach — a danger to the credibility of his output and the sport which, it should not be forgotten, has thrived in part as a result of off-track intrigue.

Bottas drives around the Melbourne circuit during Friday - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia's Australian Grand Prix practice

Bottas drives around the Melbourne circuit during Friday - Catch Me If You Can! World Champion Lewis Hamilton Shows He's Still The Man To Beat In Australia's Australian Grand Prix practice

Bottas drives around the Melbourne circuit during Friday’s Australian Grand Prix practice

Now some positives. We wait excitedly to see if Charles Leclerc, 21, can push Vettel hard at Ferrari. And we will keep a watching brief on the two exciting Brits, or three if you count English-raised Thai Alex Albon at Toro Rosso.

Friday showed that one of the trio, George Russell, will have a particularly tough beginning at Williams, who were four seconds off the pace.

We are starting to see a difference in character between Russell, 21, and his compatriot Lando Norris, 19, at McLaren. Both are first-time visitors to Australia. 

While Norris has chosen to stay in his hotel room and play computer games, Russell drove two and a half hours along the Great Ocean Road, only turning back because, as he joked, he was in danger of ending up in Perth. 

Each to his own, as Wolff was saying. 

 



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