SPIELBERG, Austria, July 7 (Reuters) - Triple world champion Lewis Hamilton put Mercedes on top of the timesheets in first practice for the Austrian Grand Prix on Friday with Ferrari’s championship leader Sebastian Vettel fourth.
The rivals, separated by 14 points after eight races, were getting back to business after calming a ‘road rage’ controversy that has dominated Formula One since the previous race in Azerbaijan.
Hamilton, the only driver on the current grid to have won previously in Austria following the retirement of 2016 champion and team mate Nico Rosberg, set a fastest time of one minute 05.975 seconds on soft tyres.
The lap was the fastest yet around the Red Bull-owned circuit.
On a sunny morning in the scenic Styrian hills, Red Bull’s Dutch teenager Max Verstappen ended the session second fastest, 0.190 off Hamilton’s pace and using supersoft tyres, with Valtteri Bottas third for Mercedes.
Vettel’s time of 1:06.424 was nearly half a second off the pace.
Mercedes have won every year since Austria returned to the calendar in 2014, after being absent for a decade, with Hamilton triumphant in 2016.
The Briton and his Ferrari rival, a four-times world champion with Red Bull, have been closely matched on race pace, however, with each winning three grands prix so far this season.
“Hopefully we have a calmer race and we should have more, let’s say, consistent conditions, then you are able to read much more how close we are,” Vettel said on Thursday after making a public apology to Hamilton for the Baku furore.
The German had driven into the back of Hamilton’s car, while the race leader was waiting for the safety car to pit, and had pulled alongside to remonstrate.
He then accused Hamilton of ‘brake-testing’ him, words he retracted this week after apologising.
The furore was still a major talking point when the teams regrouped but both drivers said they had moved on and were focusing on Sunday’s race.
Behind the top four, Azerbaijan race winner Daniel Ricciardo was fifth fastest for Red Bull ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
Ricciardo injected some Australian humour into the build-up when he jokingly told Sky Sports television, while struggling to keep a straight face, that Baku had changed everything.
“I always said I want to win five races and retire so I‘m probably not going to compete this weekend,” he smiled. “I think I‘m done. So it’s changed pretty dramatically my position in the sport.”
He then reassured “people at home who don’t understand my silly sense of humour” not to worry. (Editing by John O‘Brien)