Nostalgia or harbinger? Tough to tell in the inscrutable world of a testfree Formula One season, but a return to the top of timesheets by McLaren Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen must be warmly welcomed by a team whose season start was rightly termed disgraceful (driver) and mediocre (car).
Thus World Champion Hamilton, whose driving title defense began with that incomprehensible lying business to Australian stewards, finished quickest Friday at the 2.722-mile Hungaroring after two practice sessions for Sunday's Grand Prix of Hungary. Teammate Kovalainen, last year's race winner and quickest in first practice, was right behind. McLaren drivers have not reached the podium this season although Hamilton finished fourth in Bahrain.
The effort could mean a McLaren driver might reach the podium's top step Sunday because, well, odd things happen in Hungary. Or it could mean the real contenders, Brawn GP and Red Bull, the only winning teams so far this season, were attending other matters Friday in preparation for Saturday's qualifying sessions. As seen, Friday times give little accurate indication of performance to come. Ask Nico Rosberg of Williams F1. His impressive practice times have yet to yield a podium this season. Rosberg, fourth in Germany, was third-quick Friday afternoon. Williams F1 arrived with new wings, front and rear, for the FW31s. They were deemed A-OK by technical director Sam Michael.
Much of practice -- in warmer temperatures than afforded in recent races in Britain and Germany -- was spent finding grip on an unused track known for its dusty state. Ferrari's Felipe Massa slipped all over the place, sliding off at seemingly every opportunity, eventually logging 18th on charts. In search of stick, the softer of two Bridgestone tire compounds found ready use.
Red Bull's Mark Webber, winner of the most recent race, in Germany, was fourth-quick even after he was stopped by hydraulics issues. His teammate, Sebastian Vettel, followed Rosberg teammate Kazuki Nakajima. Vettel's RB5 needed front suspension attention. "The car seems to be going OK at the moment," Webber said. "We'll see what fuel loads people are running as usual tomorrow and on Sunday. We've got a bit of work to do with our car but, in general, it's been a reasonably positive day, with the exception of stopping towards the end of the second session with a hydraulic problem."
Following Vettel in the first 10 were Brawn GP's Rubens Barrichello, Toyota's Jarno Trulli, stopped on track by electrical gremlins, BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, and Toyota's Timo Glock. Following on were Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, Renault's Fernando Alonso, Brawn's Jenson Button, BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica, Renault's Nelson Piquet, Force India's Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella, Massa, and Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari. As has become customary, two seconds covered the field.
The Brawns are favored in hotter temperatures -- track temps in the afternoon session topped the 100-degree Fahrenheit mark -- and on a short track resembling Monaco for slow corners. The BGP 001s are outfitted with new diffusers, rear wings and other improved bodywork. The Brawns were troubled in cooler races when tires wouldn't warm up.
Toro Rosso's Buemi, 20, heretofore the sport's only rookie, welcomed a new, even younger, teammate with the STR4's performance upgrade package: new diffuser, front wing and nose, and top bodywork. Changes didn't pull Toro Rosso off the bottom of timesheets now that Force India runners Fisichella and Sutil have made good their claim to improvement. Force India team principal Vijay Mallya reckons his team have improved by 1.7 seconds per lap this season.
Alguersuari, 19, stepped into the STR4 Friday with permission to turn left and right rather than drive straight only, and he managed to keep it upright through both sessions, clocking up lots of laps. His arrival in replacement of Sebastien Bourdais has been the subject of much driver rattling about whether he belongs in the sport's top level at his tender age. Compatriot Alonso sees no problem; he drove for Minardi at 19. Others are less sure. For his part, Alguersuari acknowledged that what should have been the happiest day of his racing career is clouded by the death during a race meeting last weekend of former F3 mate Henry Surtees, 18.
Beyond the weekend's first order of business, Red Bull extended Webber's contract through 2010 ... Piquet talked openly of being on notice that this could be his final race for Renault. ... Rosberg said he is entertaining offers from McLaren and BMW Sauber as well as Williams F1. ... Barrichello, 37, has mentioned retirement -- but only in a 5 percent consideration way. His tirade toward his team after the race in Germany, his second such outburst this season, has drawn several looks askance along pit lane. Williams F1 owner Sir Frank Williams called the Brazilian's behavior "a red-card offense." ... Nothing has diminished conviction in certain quarters that Alonso will be announced as a Ferrari driver for 2010 during the Italian Grand Prix weekend Sept. 11 to 13.