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Lewis Hamilton finishes seventh at first practice ahead of Australian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton finished a distant seventh in first practice for the Australian Grand Prix (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP)
Lewis Hamilton finished a distant seventh in first practice for the Australian Grand Prix (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP)

Lewis Hamilton finished a distant seventh in first practice for the Australian Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion was 1.2 seconds adrift of pace setter Carlos Sainz, with his Ferrari team-mate and championship leader Charles Leclerc second at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Sergio Perez took third ahead of his Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen. British driver Lando Norris finished fifth for McLaren.

Formula One is back in Australia for the first time since the 2020 Grand Prix was cancelled at the eleventh hour because of Covid-19.

A record 410,000 fans are expected across the three days with the grandstands full for the opening running of the weekend.

Hamilton, who finished 10th at the last round in Saudi Arabia, is already 29 points behind Leclerc.

The Brit’s Mercedes team have not brought any major upgrades to Melbourne, and the Silver Arrows might be alarmed by their lacklustre early showing. Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell was four tenths behind in 12th.

Leclerc might lead the title race after the opening two rounds but the Monegasque endured a number of hairy moments in the first running, taking two trips across the gravel.

Sebastian Vettel was sidelined for the races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia after testing positive for Covid-19.

The four-time world champion is back in action this weekend, but his first outing ended prematurely following an engine failure.

Vettel came to a halt with smoke billowing out of his Aston Martin. He then rode a moped back to this pits, waving to the crowd.

Home favourite Daniel Ricciardo finished eighth in his McLaren. The concluding practice session takes place at 4pm (7am UK).

Hamilton has already been cast 29 points adrift in the championship race after he finished only 10th at the second round in Saudi Arabia a fortnight ago.

Mercedes have dominated the sport since 2014 – carrying Hamilton to six titles and winning an unprecedented eight constructors’ championships in succession.

But Hamilton and Russell have all but written off their aspirations unless Mercedes can radically improve their underperforming car.

Mercedes’ season has been derailed by ‘porpoising’ – the phenomenon seen this year when the car violently bounces on its suspension at high speed.

The problem caught Mercedes completely off guard, and Russell said it is the source of 99 per cent of the team’s problems.

It had been suggested that the Silver Arrows would bring a new rear wing and a revised floor to Melbourne for Formula One’s first race Down Under in two years.

But the PA news agency understands that no big updates are planned for Sunday’s race at Albert Park.

It has been a trying start to the new season for the cream of the British crop, with Norris also struggling at McLaren.

Norris, 22, finished seventh in Saudi Arabia, almost one minute behind winner Max Verstappen.

In February, Norris signed a new four-year deal with McLaren, which is understood to earn him in the region of £20million-a-year.

A headshot of Lando Norris
Lando Norris signed a new four-year deal with McLaren earlier this year (Bradley Collyer/PA)

But Jenson Button – the former McLaren driver and 2009 world champion – recently questioned the logic behind Norris’ long-term contract.

However, Norris said: “I see a lot of stories that say I have made the wrong decision, but that is not the case.

“I am happy. I have all the faith in the world that we can still achieve good things in the next few years and if I had to make that decision again, I would still do what I did.

“There were chances to go to other teams. But is it the best thing to be somewhere different for one or two years and then it might be worse? Or is it better to be here and play the long game?

“I have more confidence in the long game and I want to do it with McLaren anyway.

“It is easy for people to question from the outside. You cannot please everyone and not everyone has the facts and knowledge that I do. You just have to live with it.”