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Hamilton is off to flyer ahead of Aussie opener

By Philip Duncan

Lewis Hamilton hailed the perfect start to his new Formula One season after he completed a dominant practice double and laid down an ominous marker to his rivals ahead of this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.

Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel exchanged verbal volleys in Melbourne on Thursday as they failed to agree on which driver-team combination should be considered the favourites heading into a new era following changes to the sport's technical regulations.

The consensus in the paddock was that Ferrari, led by four-time champion Vettel and starved of championship glory for a decade, held the advantage following a promising eight days of pre-season testing in Barcelona.

However, Hamilton's blistering pace here round Albert Park would appear to point to the contrary.

Indeed Britain's triple world champion, who is bidding to reclaim the crown he lost to bitter rival Nico Rosberg last year, finished both sessions an eye-watering half-a-second clear of his rivals.

Hamilton's best effort of one minute 23.620 seconds was 0.547 faster than Vettel in the second session, with Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish driver hired to replace Rosberg following his shock retirement, marginally slower.

Kimi Raikkonen was fourth fastest, with the Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen fifth and sixth.

"It is a wonderful feeling coming into a new era of Formula One to have a car that is so strong and I'm super happy to be back, particularly after a first day like that," beamed Hamilton. "It was 99 per cent perfect.

"After struggling with some issues in Barcelona we didn't know if we'd have the same thing here. What's really encouraging is that we've arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be.

"We were optimistic and hopeful that we would be at the front, but the car felt night and day as to how it did in the final days of testing so that was a relief to all of us.

"Ferrari are still right there with us and Red Bull have picked up a lot of pace. We have got to stay on our toes, but I think we are making the right steps in the right direction."

While there is only so much that can be gauged from practice, with drivers operating varying fuel levels, the theory that this year's wider, faster and more aggressive looking cars would suddenly shake up the order and bring a dramatic halt to Mercedes' dominance is now under significant scrutiny.

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