F1

Rosberg tops Spanish GP Friday practice times

Rosberg tops Spanish GP Friday practice times

And so, after a busy opening act, to Europe, where the Formula One Circus finds politics trumps sportsmanship and McLaren Mercedes are given a suspended race ban for lying to race stewards, where the president of the sanctioning body has carried...

And so, after a busy opening act, to Europe, where the Formula One Circus finds politics trumps sportsmanship and McLaren Mercedes are given a suspended race ban for lying to race stewards, where the president of the sanctioning body has carried out a cost-reduction scheme that kicks up a feud with the oldest marque in the sport, and where a disgraced world champion continues his image rehabilitation.

Nico Rosberg, Williams F1 Team.
Photo by xpb.cc.

On track, home ground represents a psychological shift. Teams are back at Barcelona, Spain's Circuit de Catalunya, the one they know best from testing. Updates, mostly of the aero sort, have been added. Results should fall to hand. Unless they don't, of course.

Which brings us, gentle readers, to Friday practices for Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix. World champion race points leader Jenson Button was quickest for the morning session in the Brawn GP BGP001, the best performer among three teams that began the season with rear diffusers that sent competitors howling. Toyota's Jarno Trulli followed. By afternoon, Williams runners Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima had claimed top place on timesheets. Thus, quick times accounted for all of the "diffuser three".

Even as rules-makers continue trying to slow the cars -- engine rev limits have been cut again this season, to 18,000 -- Rosberg's 1 minute, 21.588 seconds clocking around the 2.875-mile circuit beat last year's fast race lap, 1:21.670, set by winner Kimi Raikkonen. Nakajima's 1:21.740 beat last year's pole time of 1:21.813, also by Raikkonen. Yet in four races this season, Williams have failed to translate fast practice sessions into serious results. Like Toyota, they have yet to win a race. Button has won three of four with a constructors' race-leading team collecting sponsorships as quickly as it is piling up points.

Following the Toyota-powered Williams was national hero and consensus top driver in the series, Fernando Alonso of Renault, whose morning finish was 17th. Brawn's Rubens Barrichello, Red Bull's Mark Webber, Button, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, Renault's Nelson Piquet and Scuderia Toro Rosso's earnest rookie Sebastien Buemi filled out the first nine. Gravel fan Piquet took top spot momentarily to be bumped by Nakajima who in turn was displaced by Vettel. If Buemi drove as if afire, it might have been his STR4's brakes, which caught alight early in the second session.

Kimi Raikkonen, Scuderia Ferrari.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Thus continued the theme of 2009. The highest-placed timer from last year's podium, Raikkonen in the Ferrari F60, was 10th. Runner-up Felipe Massa was 15th and third-placer Lewis Hamilton 13th for McLaren Mercedes. This with Ferrari running "major updates" including a new rear diffuser, a changed front wing, new sidepods, and a different front suspension. They carry on KERS.

Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais followed Raikkonen and Giancarlo Fisichella, whose Force India VJM02 improved with its new floor but still not carrying the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS), ended up behind Bourdais but ahead of both McLarens, those of Hamilton then Heikki Kovalainen. Noticeable changes to McLaren's MP4-24s included engine covers. Only thereafter followed Massa, who put the F60 up the charts early in the opening session. The BMW Saubers of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld, sans KERS but with major changes to front and rear wings and sporting other aero bits, were placed 16th and 17th ahead of both Toyotas, Timo Glock and Trulli, who lost final flying lap opportunities to yellow flags when Rosberg ran out of gas a minute before time was used up in the final Friday practice. Two seconds covered the field. Force India's Adrian Sutil, 20th in the morning, sat out second practice owing to a fuel cell problem.

The new in-season test ban means race weekend practice sessions are less readable than ever, although focusing on Saturday's qualifying isn't a bad idea. Pole sitters here have won the past eight races. Drivers have learned the fine art of saying nothing in 500 words. Webber and Vettel are especially expert -- although Vettel is funny at it; he claimed a radio failure had him speaking to a Spanish -- make that Catalan, wunderkind -- taxi driver. Perhaps they're only demonstrating for new reserve driver, Brendon Hartley of New Zealand, attending his first F1 event.

Practice evaluations included the two Bridgestone compounds on hand: hard and soft (of a choice of hard, medium, soft and supersoft). Trulli went quickest in the morning on hard tires, then Kubica popped to near the top on softs. The Pole wound up third for the morning session.

"The tires are much closer than we anticipated on the basis of the tests we've had here, and the hard tires look stronger than they have at other circuits," Williams tech director Sam Michal said. "We should, therefore, expect to see more even strategies from the teams on Sunday, rather than these unbalanced strategies that we've seen in the first four races of the year whereby people have run very short final stints."

Race day forecast: rain.

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