SPIELBERG, Austria (AP) — Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton feels confident of a repeat pole position after posting the fastest time in both practice sessions for the Austrian Grand Prix on Friday.
The British driver, who won here from the front last year, was 0.147 seconds faster than championship leader Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari in the afternoon and 0.19 ahead of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull in the morning.
“The car feels fantastically fast here. There’s already a nice balance,” Hamilton said. “This car is so quick in comparison to what we raced here last year. The team is in good spirits and we’re all up for another exciting fight with the Ferraris.”
The only minor glitch for Hamilton was to come in to the pits briefly for a spark plug change in P2.
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“The guys did a great job to turn the car around and we still managed to complete our program,” Hamilton said.
A third practice session is on Saturday morning ahead of qualifying in the afternoon.
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, was third best in both sessions— despite going off track three times.
“This track punishes you if you make a mistake, and I tested those limits, but that’s something I can learn from,” the Finnish driver said. “The balance of the car feels good and we’ll fine tune the set-up some more to be ready for qualifying.”
The Spielberg track, nestled amid rolling hills and forests under the imposing Styrian Alps, was slippery and caused problems on Turns 1, 6 and 7.
Verstappen, fourth fastest in P2, said his tires were “all over the place” in the afternoon.
Both Toro Rosso cars failed to finish P2.
Spanish driver Carlos Sainz Jr. went off track early on and Russian Daniil Kvyat rolled back to the garage with flames jetting out from his left rear tire.
Fernando Alonso was eighth best in P2 on an encouraging day for the struggling McLaren team. However, the Spanish driver was also one of several to spin on Turn 6, and again on Turn 7 and into the gravel.
Bottas also went into the gravel at much the same place as Alonso early into the afternoon’s session, having spun his car twice in the morning.
In P1, Vettel clipped the kerb at Turn 1. Verstappen, Haas driver Romain Grosjean, and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr. wobbled on the same turn — as did Hamilton late into P1.
The build-up to the race was overshadowed by the bitter fallout from the heated Vettel-Hamilton clash in Azerbaijan.
Two weeks ago in Baku, an irate Vettel swerved into Hamilton, albeit at slow speed, because he thought the British driver slammed his brakes on recklessly late, right in front of him, seconds earlier.
Vettel was given a time penalty during that race but escaped further punishment from the FIA, motor sport’s governing body, following a hearing on Monday.
At a packed news conference Thursday, Vettel made a full apology which Hamilton accepted — although he maintained the German driver should have been further punished over the incident.
Both said the matter is closed.
“It is a matter for the two of them, great drivers,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “There is nothing more to comment on the topic.”
In the championship standings, four-time champion Vettel leads three-time champion Hamilton by 14 points after eight races.
“It’s clear that when you have such an intense rivalry there will be ups and downs,” Wolff said. “The longer it goes the more intense it gets.”