Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton was fastest in both practice sessions ahead of the Australian Grand PrixGetty Images

Excitement is building ahead of the first qualifying session of the new Formula 1 season March 24, with Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari all appearing to have closely-matched cars.

Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton was the quickest driver in both practice sessions in Melbourne on March 23, leading Red Bull's Max Verstappen by 0.127 seconds in the second session.

Less than 0.3 seconds separated the fastest Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari cars in the Albert Park circuit.

Valtteri Bottas finished third in the second session, 0.228 seconds behind his teammate, with Kimi Raikkonen coming in fourth, 0.283 seconds slower than Hamilton.

Earlier in the day, Hamilton finished 0.551 seconds ahead of second-placed Bottas in the first practice session.

"The gap closed up a little bit between all the cars in second practice, but that's exciting anyway," the Briton told F1.com.

"It is more challenging for me to drive and eke out a little more from the car. We have to establish if I lost some performance or they all gained. But I enjoyed driving."

Rain is forecast in Melbourne through the race weekend, and Hamilton said the weather could make the race more interesting.

"When it gets cooler it gets better," he said. "It gets easier. Usually, when it gets hotter it has often in the past suited other teams, but we are all in a similar position.

"Tomorrow it is going to rain, as far as I am aware, and the same on Sunday. I don't know if I have driven in the rain yet on these tires, so it will be interesting."

Hamilton has been on pole six times in Melbourne through his career, including the last four Australian Grand Prix, but has only won the race twice from the pole.

Meanwhile, Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo has been handed a three-place grid penalty at the Australian GP for driving too fast under red flag conditions during practice.

Where to watch

Qualifying starts at 11.30am IST. The session will be broadcast live on Star Sports Select 2 HD. Live streaming services are available on Hotstar.