Lewis Hamilton breaks lap record in practice for Austrian Grand Prix

Austrian Grand Prix

Mercedes Valtteri Bottas celebrates his Austrian GP win on the podium

However, his team said later in the day he would collect a five-place penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change - something they had known but kept quiet about since Tuesday at least.

In the wake of the controversy that followed championship leader Sebastian Vettel's "road rage" attack at last month's Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Hamilton had made a decision to put the incident behind him and do his talking on the track.

Hamilton starts the weekend 14 points behind Vettel in the championship. The penalty comes at a particularly bad time in terms of momentum. "The target is not less than winning of course".

"It's difficult for us all to swallow but we pull together as a team and we work as hard as we can".

Verstappen set the early marker with a 1:06.015 on the ultra soft tires, but the Ferrari and Mercedes drivers had yet to clock times 15 minutes into the session.

Hamilton may gain some inspiration from the example set previous year by Dutchman Max Verstappen, who started ninth on the grid in his Red Bull, but climbed to finish second courtesy of a well-crafted one-stop strategy.

In a statement, the sport's ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA) said: "The above driver (Hamilton) did finish the last race in Baku and this gearbox change was before the six consecutive events expired".

"I'm pretty sure back then there was a bigger difference in speed between (Mercedes) and other cars", Hamilton said.

Sunday, he said, would be mostly about damage limitation.

Bottas finished ninth in this race a year ago and fifth in 2014.

"We made changes for qualifying and I think the auto was good".

That may give Mercedes pause for thought heading into Saturday's (Sunday NZT) final practice and qualifying.

"The laps were getting better and better".

The Mercedes driver repeated his FP1-topping form on Friday afternoon with a 1m05.483s that put him 0.147s clear of Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari.

But Vettel did not rule out Hamilton's chances of challenging. "Let's see. We should be ok tomorrow".

Sebastian Vettel was happy to qualify second - critically ahead of his championship rival Hamilton and perhaps too because Ferrari appeared to be lagging behind Mercedes in recent races, particularly in qualifying.

Hamilton failed to find his best level in Q3, calling his drive "so-so".

It will take something special for Hamilton to win the 57th race of his career. When they did, Vettel ended up second and Bottas fourth.

That, at least, may boost Hamilton's morale.

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