David Schilke, International Editor
The opening practice season for the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship got underway with soggy skies at the Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne, Australia. The first half of the session was quite slow as most teams waited out the wet conditions. By the end of session, the action was fast and furious as intermediate Pirelli tires gave way to proper slicks.
Mercedes power plants ruled the final half of practice 1 with the factory Mercedes team drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg trading fast laps into low 1:28 laptimes. It seemed the pair would hold the top two positions on the timesheets before McLaren's Jenson Button went out on medium compound tires and broke into the 1:27 territory on the still green and slippery track. Not to be outdone, Lewis Hamilton set on his final hot lap a time less than three tenths of his McLaren teammate.
Earlier in the session, before the circuit had dried, few teams set any times beyond a few installation laps on the intermediate tires. The Ferrari of Fernando Alonso held the best lap after thirty minutes as Rosberg had a slight off and HRT's Narain Karthikeyan pulled off the track with only three laps under his belt and no recorded time. The car would stay parked offline for the rest of the session. Even worse for HRT, Pedro de la Rosa never left his garage, after the team had scrambled to get his car through scrutineering before the first session.
With under an hour to go Kamui Kobayashi put his Sauber on top while teammate Sergio Perez tried his luck on medium slicks, but set no laptime. A brief lull fell over the track while teams switched car setups and waited for the track to dry. Halfway into the session many drivers had yet to set one laptime, including the McLarens of Button and Hamilton, along with Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn would have to wait while the Lotus F1 Team changed out his steering gearbox.
Kobayashi was the first driver to set a time on the medium compound and easily bettered his lap by 5.155 seconds, even with a harry moment of oversteer while setting the quick time. Soon the field was out in force with thirty minutes to go and the Red Bulls finally appeared near the top. Mark Webber went second fastest, while anyone watching the live feed was treated to a new camera angle mounted to the Aussie's helmet. Sebastian Vettel was just a bit slower and picked up third.
Japan's Kobayashi was still on the attack and broke into the sub 1:30 laptimes with a 1:29.722. The Sauber driver was taking his car to the limit, late braking into the first turn and running wide on the rumble strips upon exit. Yet the top would soon belong to Schumacher, who first set a 1:29.656 before finally taking it down to 1:28.235. Rosberg was close to his fellow German, ending the session at 1:28.683.
In the final 15 minutes the track was busy as laptimes improved. Raikkonen finally made an appearance and managed ninth fastest in eight laps. Webber was hanging in the top three, splitting the Mercedes, before Hamilton took second overall. Just as the timesheets changed with a flurry of activity the session went under a local yellow for Massa, who buried his Ferrari in the sand trap at turn nine, known as Clark. In the replay it was shown Massa touched the grass with his left front tire under heavy braking, but the Brazilian only knew his brakes felt soft and soon his backend was swinging around on him.
With Massa's car out of the sand box Jenson Button handily jumped to the top with a 1:27.650. With less than ten on the clock Kobayashi wasn't the only Sauber driver making the replay reel, Perez was spotted to be very tail happy on the circuit. Perez would close the season 15th, while Kobayashi's early lap on slicks set him in the top ten.
In the closing laps Button reset his lap to 1:27.560 while Hamilton recorded his lap at 1:27.805. With the checker out it was clear McLaren wanted to set a strong pace heading into tomorrow's qualifying. Schumacher held onto third, meaning the top three best times of the session were set with a Mercedes engine. Alonso closed the session in fourth, with Webber close behind in fifth. Rosberg took sixth, while the very happy Australian native Daniel Ricciardo set seventh for Toro Rosso, and Pastor Maldonado took his Williams to eighth. Uncharacteristically, Vettel finished out of the top ten, with eleventh being his best after 21 laps.
More rain is possible before and during the second practice session today. If it stays dry then times will improve and perhaps Vettel will show a hint of the pace most expect to see out of the Red Bull this weekend. Yet, if the track is back to being wet, then not much will happen, as most teams will wait for Saturday to dial their cars for the dry conditions expected during qualifying and the race.