The usual suspects, Ferrari and McLaren Mercedes, topped time charts Thursday in opening practice sessions for Sunday's Grand Prix of Monaco. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was quickest at the first go, setting a 1 minute, 15.948 second lap. McLaren's...
The usual suspects, Ferrari and McLaren Mercedes, topped time charts Thursday in opening practice sessions for Sunday's Grand Prix of Monaco. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was quickest at the first go, setting a 1 minute, 15.948 second lap. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton lowered that to 1:15.140 in the day's second practice, running at "the race hour" time of day. Hamilton's time was more than a half-second lower than last year's pole time set by his then teammate Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton's quick effort came on a new compound from tire supplier Bridgestone, which introduced a reformulated "super soft" composition. Raikkonen's first-session quicks were on a soft compound. The tire choices this weekend are soft and super soft.
"The first day of running at Monaco is always difficult for data collection as the track surface changes very quickly as the road gets cleaned and rubber goes down," Hirohide Hamashima, Bridgestone's director of motorsport tire development, said. "Most laps took place on the soft compound today and we did see more graining than predicted, however, this should improve as the track surface gets better."
The wild card in the pack was Nico Rosberg, who put his Williams Toyota second-best (1:15.533) in the afternoon, an effort sure to please his boss, Sir Frank Williams, who marks 600 grands prix at this race to become F1's longest-serving active entrant.
"As most people would expect, reaching 600 grands prix means very little to me," Williams said. "I do have to admit, however, that there have been some brilliant moments over the 40 years that I've been racing, and there have also been some moments of great sadness. Most of the time, it has been a most pleasurable experience. If I was 40 years younger, I would still choose the same path towards where I find myself today."
Williams's cars have won 113 races, seven World Drivers' Championships and nine World Constructors' Championships. His influence in the sport is such that his stance against customer cars in the past few months has prompted a policy turnaround by Formula One management.
Williams drivers past and present paid tribute to their boss. His current star, Nico Rosberg, said, "It's great to be part of his team and to be with a team with such a strong history. I wish him many more great races in the future." Rosberg's father, Keke Rosberg, was world champion for Williams in 1982. In the mold of his employer, Rosberg the Younger focused on racing.
"First of all, it's really nice to be driving here again because it's just a really fun track," Rosberg said. "I was looking forward to this weekend because I thought we were going to have a good car here and it now looks like we've arrived with a good setup. I was going well all day and felt comfortable in the car. I am also able to push quite hard so I'm hoping that I can keep it up, do a good job in qualifying, and then have a good race."
Raikkonen led teammate Felipe Massa in second practice, which stopped briefly near the end when defending race champion Alonso scrubbed his Renault against a barrier at Sainte Devote corner. Hamilton's teammate Heikki Kovalainen came fifth-quick ahead of the driver F1 fans think will win his first GP on the Monte Carlo streets, Robert Kubica of BMW Sauber. The Pole was followed by Alonso, who had run as far up the charts as second in the session.
Perhaps basing his view on a forecast of opportunity-offering rain, Spaniard Alonso has expressed optimism at regaining the top podium step despite a proprietary posture on the part of Hamilton. This race a year ago was the first sign of disharmony in the McLaren team when double world champion Alonso led his rookie teammate to a one-two finish. Hamilton then groused to the British press that his team would not let him pass his teammate despite, as the Englishman put it, his clear superiority.
"Overall, the two sessions have gone well for us," Alonso said. "The track was very dirty this morning but we made good progress with our program, and the car reacted well to the changes we made. We seem to be on the pace in the long runs, but we must now improve our performance over a single lap because qualifying here is vital. That is where we will put our efforts."
Hondas seemed to have found answers. Both reached the top 10 in a practice session that takes on added weight; Saturday's qualifying becomes the focal point of the weekend because passing during the race is seen as impossible, although year after year drivers manage it. Eighth-best Jenson Button (1:16.351) followed Alonso. The Englishman's teammate Rubens Barrichello was close by, just behind Williams driver Kazuki Nakajima.
BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, starting to hear dark murmurings about his success against teammate Kubica, suffered engine failure in first practice and found himself in 11th in the second, ahead of Timo Glock in the Toyota. Glock's teammate Jarno Trulli, a former winner, had clipped a barrier and damaged his car's suspension during first practice. Trulli posted 17th-best second-practice time.
"This was a difficult day for me," Trulli said. "This morning I made a mistake and touched the wall on the way into the tunnel. That broke my rear suspension so I missed some running. Then in the afternoon we had a problem with the floor that made me lose a lot more track time, so it is hard to draw too many conclusions so far.
"It's difficult to make predictions here because anything can happen. We are expecting to see a wet track during the weekend, which will make things especially tough. So there are a lot of variables that make this a unique place to race, but the atmosphere is always special."
Frustratingly for the fizzy drinks entrants, Red Bull and Scuderia Toro Rosso fared poorly on time sheets. Red Bull has shown respectable improvement this season, Australian Mark Webber having scored all 10 of his fifth-place team's points. Webber and teammate David Coulthard, another former winner here, put the Red Bull RB4s in 13th and 14th on the charts, respectively. Coulthard's RB4 suffered an engine fire in first practice. Toro Rosso followed only McLaren through speed traps at Monaco, yet by end of day the Sebs, Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Vettel, could haul their new STR3s no further up time charts than 18 and 20, respectively.
"We got through all our program, but there is still some work to do, assuming we are looking at a dry qualifying and a dry race," Webber said. "At the moment, the car is not suiting the track that well, but we know what we need to do to sort it out."
Alonso's rookie teammate Nelsinho Piquet, whose job is reportedly under threat, also scrubbed off his rear wing in second practice and placed 15th. He was followed by Alonso's previous Renault teammate, Giancarlo Fisichella, whose Force India VJM01 mustered a 1:17.251. Sunday's race will be the Italian's 200th, which had he completed them all represents 15,600 laps over the bumpy, harbor-lining, tire-chewing course.
"Monaco is a difficult circuit and so I spent the day learning and familiarizing myself with the track," Piquet said. "We were able to evaluate some different setups, but I am still missing a bit of speed and I did not feel totally comfortable in the car. I hope that by Saturday I can make some progress with my engineers so that I can make the most of the final free practice session. Then I need to approach qualifying calmly, especially as it's more important here than anywhere else."
Only marginally slower than drivers at practice were reporters scrambling after FIA president Max Mosley. Mosley made his first F1 race appearance since allegations in a British tabloid about his private life. The allegations have thrown his leadership of international motorsport's regulatory body into doubt. Mosley awaits a June 3 ballot of the body's general membership that will determine if he gives up his unpaid post in the coming weeks or at the end of his term, fall 2009, when he said he intends to step down. Mosley refused to speak to reporters.
Movie star business apparently keeping them in nearby Cannes, France, where an annual film festival is under way, few celebrities aside from Michael Schumacher were present in Monte Carlo. Helpfully, no dog sightings were reported during Thursday's practices.