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Hamilton fastest in pre-qualifying practice at Australian GP

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time in Saturday’s pre-qualifying practice session for the Australian Grand Prix, heightening the sense of inevitability about his team winning Sunday’s Formula One season opener.

Hamilton set a time of 1 minute, 27.867 seconds at the Albert Park circuit, two-thirds of a second faster than Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who split the two Mercedes cars, with Nico Rosberg third. The Williams drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa were in fourth and fifth.

Mercedes dominated the 2014 season, winning all but three races, and the team’s preseason testing this year, along with the practice sessions in Melbourne, indicate it has maintained the advantage it holds over its rivals.

Red Bull had yet another troubled session, with both Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat suffering engine problems. Kvyat completed less than half the number of laps as most cars, while Ricciardo did not run on the softer and faster tires and was down in 15th position.

The Manor cars did not take part in the session due to technical issues, raising doubts about whether they’ll be ready for qualifying later Saturday. New owners only took over the team two weeks ago and they are playing catch-up with their preparations for the season.

Even if they do manage to get on track for qualifying, it would be highly unlikely they would be able to get within seven percent of the pole position time, the threshold for taking part in the grand prix.

McLaren also struggled as it comes to term with its new Honda power train. Both Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen were more than three seconds off the pace.

Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was sixth-fastest, followed by the Lotus cars of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado, Toro Rosso rookie Carlos Sainz Jr. and Sauber’s Felipe Nasr.

Nasr and Marcus Ericsson were cleared to compete this weekend for Sauber after the team reached an agreement with ex-driver Giedo van der Garde to suspend his legal dispute for the duration of the race weekend. Sauber was ordered in a series of court rulings to honor a race-driving contract it had with van der Garde for the season, but the team and driver agreed to resolve the dispute after the Australian Grand Prix.

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