Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
Jenson Button was quickest for McLaren this morning during the first free practice session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Briton lapped the Yas Marina circuit in 1m40.263s. Mark Webber took the honors for Red Bull and finished in second place, while Lewis Hamilton in the second McLaren took third place, just 0.140s slower than Button.
Sebastian Vettel was fourth in the second Red Bull, but the 2011 World Champion was almost half a second slower than Button. Both Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa took fifth and sixth position respectively - with Massa being the last driver to finish within one second of the fastest time.
Again Force India driver Adrian Sutil impressed as he landed seventh place, just ahead of the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg who took eighth place. Force India’s Paul di Resta and Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari completed the top ten.
Drivers were out quickly for an installation lap this morning, and spent the first 20 minutes of the session checking if all systems properly worked.
Three new faces at Abu Dhabi, back in the seat at Lotus Renault was Frenchman Romain Grosjean who is rumored to replace Robert Kubica for the 2012 season, and it was the current GP2 champion who set the first timed lap of the day with a time of 1m50.375s.
Canadian Robert Wickens made his Grand Prix debut taking over the Marussia Virgin of Jerome d’Ambrosio, while Jean-Eric Vergne took over the wheel of Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso this morning.
Many off-track outings on a still green and dusty Yas Marina circuit, but the track has many safe run-off areas and drivers were able to steer their car back onto the track without too much damage. Both Ferrari drivers were also seen completely of course several times, suggesting the Ferrari was difficult to handle, but both drivers nevertheless ended up in the top ten.
The only one to be sidelined this morning was Rubens Barrichello who had to park his Williams along the circuit with an oil pressure problem some 25 minutes into the session, the Brazilian ended up on 24th and last place without recording a time, while his Venezuelan team mate Pastor Maldonado ultimately took 14th place, 2.992s seconds behind leader Button.
Hamilton was the first to put a representative time on the clock after his first run and set the benchmark with a lap of 1m41.846s. Others soon followed but although the track got cleaner and less dusty, Hamilton was still on top after 40 minutes of practice, he was followed by Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Button and Maldonado took sixth spot at the time.
Drivers had two extra sets of experimental soft Pirellis and used these during the early stage of practice. It soon became more and more crowded on the Yas Marina circuit with drivers trying to improve the times of their first run, but it was again Hamilton who topped the time sheets after his second run again lowering the benchmark recording a time of 1m40.466s.
Not much later Vettel posted the second fastest time, and he was followed by Button, Webber and Massa. The Brazilian then had a hairy moment when he spun in Turn 1, but could get his Ferrari back on track again, destroying a set of Pirellis in the process. Heikki Kovalainen was also one of the drivers with an off-track excursion, but the Fin took 18th spot after the chequered flag was waved to end the first practice session, again faster as his team mate Jarno Trulli, who took 19th place.
The best of the rookies was Vergne, who landed a very respectable 11th place, just 0.256s slower than Alguersuari ahead of him. Grosjean was the fastest of the Lotus Renault pair and finished in 12th, just ahead of Vitaly Petrov who took 13th place.
Not very fast was Michael Schumacher in the second Mercedes, he took 14th place with a time of 1m43.389s, which was 1.259s slower than his compatriot Rosberg. The Sauber drivers took possession of the next two places, as Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi took 16th and 17th place respectively.
Right behind the two Team Lotus drivers were both HRT drivers, Vitantonio Liuzzi, who was back in the seat after lending his car to Narain Karthikeyan during the Indian Grand Prix, took 20th place, while Australian Daniel Ricciardo followed him in 21st place.
Timo Glock was the fastest of the Marussia Virgin drivers and took 22nd place while Friday rookie Wickens took 23rd place, both were again beaten by the HRT drivers.
All in all an interesting first practice session, with the usual suspects in front, an excellent seventh place for Sutil in the Force India, also impressive was Vergne in 11th place while Schumacher scored a disappointing 15th place.
To be continued this afternoon during the second free practice session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.