And so to Germany, the most represented nation among Formula One drivers, where Mercedes is the most represented engine. The racing season resumed Friday after a three-week break with two practices for Sunday's German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. All three Mercedes-engined teams, Brawn GP, Force India and McLaren Mercedes, figured in the top 10.
World Champion Lewis Hamilton for McLaren made only his third appearance this season atop time charts. The Englishman put up a lap of 1 minute, 32.149 seconds on perhaps no more than a whiff of fuel. He posted the time and parked up, leaving favorite son Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull (1:32.331) and championship leader Jenson Button of Brawn GP (1:32.369) to make runs at his time and fall short. Fueled or not, McLaren team members seemed pleased with a flood of changes to Hamilton's car that might lift the team's fortunes for the season's second half.
The day was a general free-for-all, with cool temperatures, breezy conditions, and rainy spells making tires cold and difficult. Read: plenty of offs and nigh onto everyone taking a crack at fast lap.
Nurburgring F1 newbie Vettel, winner of the most recent race, the British Grand Prix, was always pegged as quick, but Button benefited from warming temperatures. His Brawn GP BGP001 has been notorious for trouble on cold tires and for twitchiness in the breeze. Button likened conditions and 50-degree Fahrenheit temps to winter testing. Brawn applied new front wing endplates in the now constant updating process.
First-practice leader Mark Webber of Red Bull ran fourth quick ahead of Jarno Trulli of Toyota. Force India's Adrian Sutil, as high as third after a morning beset by hydraulic problems, finished sixth. Rubens Barrichello, also garaged for much of the morning session, was seventh among the 10 runners whose times were under 1:33. (No one was under the 1:33 in the morning outing.) Barrichello said the softer of two tire compounds used was workable.
Fernando Alonso -- no doubt relieved to hop in the car and avoid further denial of recurrent Ferrari rumors -- was eighth for Renault. Kazuki Nakajima was ninth for Williams F1 in his first F1 appearance at this track, and Nelson Piquet ran 10th for Renault despite buzzing electrics.
Hot favorite among five Germans -- you remember them: Timo Glock of Toyota, Nick Heidfeld of BMW Sauber, Nico Rosberg of Williams F1, and Sutil -- Vettel, who turned 22 last week, had a grandstand named after him for this occasion. He also had electrical problems in the RB5 that cut short his morning session and left him eighth-quick. Weather commanded his attention. "The wind is very heavy and playing some tricks," he said.
Hamilton's fast lap followed one posted earlier in the afternoon session by teammate Heikki Kovalainen. Hamilton's MP4-24 was fitted with a new floor, front wing and diffuser. The MP4-24 of Kovalainen, who ended the day in 17th, did not receive all the shiny new parts. The changes appeared ahead of scheduled deployment in Hungary. A result of a season long testing ban is new parts pop up at every outing as teams caught out by the full sheet of regulations changes play catch-up. The team gave up on Hamilton's kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) in the morning session, saying it failed.
Heidfeld, among those claiming fastest lap at one time or another, was 11th quick by day's end. Teammate Robert Kubica was 14th as the German-Swiss team's struggle against anonymity continued. They arrived with new front suspension, new front wing and new diffuser.
Felipe Massa was 12th for Ferrari after going third-quick in the morning session. His teammate, former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, was sixth-quick to start the day but finished 16th in the afternoon. His F60 needed a fix to a hydraulic leak. The F60s bore new aerodynamic bits and the team focused on tire performance.
In the perversity that can be interpreting practice performance, Rosberg was 13th, well off his usual quick pace. Who knows, that might bode well for Saturday qualifying. As it was, the Williams team ran through its scheduled business.
"It was pretty difficult given the gusty wind conditions today and with the track being cold," Williams technical director Sam Michael said. "It was a challenge to generate the temperature to get the tires up to the optimum grip level as quickly as possible. However, we managed to compare both tires and check all the new aero parts we have on the car here. Overnight we will get our heads down and work on the set-up for tomorrow."
If you missed it during the break, the tire gap policy was abandoned. That stipulation had put one compound between the two compounds Bridgestone supplied each race.
Glock ended the day 15th, ahead of Raikkonen and Kovalainen.
Scuderia Toro Rosso runners rookie Sebastien Buemi and Sebastien Bourdais finished the day 18th and 19th, respectively, which won't still rumors swirling around Bourdais's immediate F1 future.
Said Buemi: "Even though our times don't look great, we did a good job today in terms of testing everything we wanted to try and so we have a clear picture of what the car is doing and why. Depending on whether it is wet or not tomorrow, we will go in a different direction to try and be more competitive. The rain cost us a bit of a track time, but it didn't affect our program, so we can be happy with the work and less so with the actual result. I have to say, I hope it rains as I think we would be more competitive in those conditions."
Said Bourdais: "The main difficulty today was the low track temperatures, which meant the tires had very little grip. We made several changes to the set-up, including some to the rear ride height. But I don't think we went in the right direction. That meant I struggled with that, and the wind also made life difficult in terms of braking stability with a strong tailwind at the chicane meaning it was hard to stop the car. Seb and I tried quite different set-ups on the car, but, in the end, they both seemed to produce similar lap times."
Only Giancarlo Fisichella had a worse finish. After he was fifth in the morning session, his Force India VJM02 slipped off track in a rain shower and clouted the barrier for front end and suspension damage early in the second session. Bourdais (1:34.025) and Fisichella (1:38.877) were the only drivers unable to crack the 1:33 mark in the afternoon.
The usual rumor mill, the one absorbed with driving spots, not the one pondering whether the sport will exist next season, has 1997 world driving champion Jacques Villeneuve making yet another return. His publicist quotes him as being "excited about the possibility of getting back to Formula One next year." A number of the Canadian's recent driving expectations have produced more light than heat. The club owner and musician won the world title for Williams in his second F1 season, Villeneuve was central to the BAR team that eventually sold up to Honda, which in turn handed off to Brawn GP. Former Indianapolis 500 winner Villeneuve, 38, had stints with Renault, Sauber and BMW before leaving the sport for sports and stock cars. Should he return, he could be the oldest driver in the Formula One. He has been linked to Team USF1.