Mobbed: Lewis Hamilton takes a selfie with his fans at Spain’s Circuit de Catalunya.

Mobbed: Lewis Hamilton takes a selfie with his fans at Spain’s Circuit de Catalunya. Photo: Getty Images

Upgrades, upgrades and more upgrades, we were told, would be the best chance of shuffling F1's pack after three weeks off, disturbing Lewis Hamilton's serene progress to his second world championship.

But on the basis of practice on Friday, Hamilton remains the fastest man on the grid and Mercedes the fastest team by some margin. The 29-year-old comfortably topped both practice sessions, and is well on course to make it four wins in a row.

The start of the European season, in beautiful sunshine at the Circuit de Catalunya, is traditionally the time when struggling teams can make quantum leaps forward. On a circuit which the drivers and teams know like the back of their hands, it also tends to set the tone for the next big chunk of the year.

Red Bull, with their beleaguered Renault engine, had the most to gain. But after a day in which Sebastian Vettel could manage only a handful of laps they will have to be content fighting for third.

That is all anyone apart from Hamilton and Nico Rosberg can manage at the moment. The German, hoping for a clean weekend, did not get it yesterday, with interruptions to his first session. Ironically on the day Mercedes renamed their car the W05 Hybrid, to recognise the radical change in technology this year, Rosberg's hybrid power unit let him down. In the afternoon he had a smoother run, but still finished nearly half a second behind his teammate.

Hamilton seems calmer and more relaxed this year. Gone from the paddock are his dogs, his entourage appears reduced in size, and clearly the tutelage of Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion and chairman of Mercedes F1, is paying dividends.

Although Hamilton said he is as committed as ever, there is something far more relentlessly focused about him.

"I'm doing exactly the same thing – I've got a great car so I'm able to excel," he said. "People say, 'he's extra focused', but it's not necessarily the case. I'm as focused as I can be."

Away from the track, Formula One is a particularly fractious sport at the moment. The four smaller disgruntled teams have threatened to force an EU intervention over revenue distribution, while Russia may still withdraw from the calendar, with its race due to take place on October 12.

The four rebellious outfits – Caterham, Force India, Marussia and Sauber – were all in the main press conference  on Friday night and reiterated their concerns in a rare show of agreement by Formula One's standards. You could be forgiven for concluding it was a staged event by the FIA; a concerted attempt to put pressure on F1's all-powerful Strategy Group made up of the biggest teams.

There was an escalation of the cost crisis yesterday as Renault, who supply Red Bull, revealed development of their underperforming engine is being put at risk by late payment from some of its customer teams.

The four teams will submit proposals for reducing costs to FIA president Jean Todt next week. It is thought they will ask Lotus and Williams, who said yesterday that the sport has reached a "critical junction" on costs, if they wish to be signatories in their plan. Sauber, meanwhile, have been left fighting on two fronts. Not only have they been a vocal critic of the cost situation, but Russian sponsors have been put at threat by the crisis in Ukraine.

On the day when tensions escalated further into open fighting, Sauber's team principal said the situation had brought commercial deals in Russia to an abrupt halt. "We have definitely seen an effect [from the crisis]," said Monisha Kaltenborn. "A lot of our talks which are very advanced have virtually come to a standstill.

"The sanctions which have been imposed are really biting some of them, so they're very careful, which means we have to wait."

The Daily Telegraph