Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
Michael Schumacher was the lucky one to top the timesheets during the second free practice session for the Australian Grand Prix. The German was fastest on the Albert Park circuit with a time of 1m29.183s which he set on a very late flying lap on a drying track after rain had dominated the major part of the second free practice session.
Schumacher was happy and he commented, “Today was a nice start into a hopefully exciting season, and certainly two promising sessions for us.” But he also realized conditions had been to his advantage, “I would not go so far as to speak about being confident, as the weather conditions were too mixed to gain a clear picture. We know what Friday sessions are for and don't know what fuel loads others were running. On the other hand, it is good to see that we were competitive in different circumstances today and that the car provides good handling - I just feel it."
Drivers only had 15 minutes of dry running towards the end of the session and frantically battled for position on a track that provided more and more grip. Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg was 0.109s slower than his compatriot Schumacher and took second place after completing a total of 19 laps, while Sauber’s Sergio Perez was third just over a second slower with a time of 1m30.199s.
The session started after a heavy downpour on a soaking wet track and unsurprisingly many drivers elected to stay in the garage and waited for better conditions. Sauber drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Perez were the first to go out on the full wet Pirelli tyres but after completing an installation lap immediately returned to the pits again.
Both Toro Rosso drivers were also brave enough to venture out on the wet circuit and it was rookie Jean-Eric Vergne who set the first official time with a lap of 1m52.220s which he later improved with two-tenths of a second. Daniel Ricciardo was the early pace setter in the rain and soon took over Vergne’s position, but the pair kept improving their times and it was Vergne who ultimately recorded a fastest lap of 1m47.166s.
Vergne who made his debut as Grand Prix driver today stated, “This morning, we did not manage to complete all our programme, partly because of the rain. That made life difficult, but you know, it was really good fun, as I’ve never driven on rain tyres, which meant I did almost everything you could do today, in terms of trying tyres. I would say it was a positive first day and what I must do tomorrow is push more.”
Kobayashi also decided to give it a try on the wet tyres, but with a time of 1m47.170s he was just 0.004s slower than Vergne. Narain Karthikeyan was also brave enough to give it a try but after four laps came in again, like others afraid to damage his brand new race machine.
It took almost half an hour before the big guns came out, Jenson Button was the first to check out the conditions on track, while at the same time Hulkenberg was quickest at the time with a lap of 1m46.779s. Kobayashi showed his Sauber was in a good shape and improved Hulkenberg’s time with almost seven-tenths of a second and one lap later was the first to go under the 1m46s marker with a lap of 1m45.117s.
Until then Race Control had banned the use of DRS as they had deemed it was not safe to use it in these atrocious conditions, one of the new 2012 regulations, but now that overall grip and visibility was improving drivers were allowed to freely use DRS again.
Soon Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso proved it was time for the intermediate tyres as he scored the fastest lap at the time, he was not much later followed by his team mate Felipe Massa. The Brazilian soon pipped the Spaniard with a time of 1m41.976s, which meant Massa and Alonso were then on top of the timesheets.
Halfway into the session Button in the McLaren scored the fastest lap on an ever drying circuit and led the pack with a time of 1m37.989s. Soon his time was improved by Schumacher and after 45 minutes the seven-times World Champion was leading and was followed by Maldonado in the Williams, Button in the McLaren and both Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
Many drivers were caught out by the still wet track and especially Turn 1 was a popular place for an off track excursion. After one hour conditions started to improve, but only 19 of the 24 drivers had posted a timed lap. Karthikeyan was the first to go out on the dry tyres, he tried a set of mediums but soon found out it was still very tricky and almost completely lost control when he exited the last corner before the start-finish.
With just 20 minutes remaining more drivers tried their luck on the slicks, both Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean had stayed in the garage until then but went out on the slick tyres to post their first timed lap. Massa also came out again and posted the fastest time, but was soon pushed down the order by Paul di Resta in the second Force India.
With ten minutes to go Di Resta was leading, followed by Massa, Heikki Kovalainen in the Caterham, and Hulkenberg and Grosjean were fourth and fifth. But with conditions improving all the time it soon became a lottery, drivers were dicing for positions but it was Schumacher who ultimately scored the quickest time on the Albert Park circuit.
Mercedes Team Principal Ross Brawn was satisfied for the day, “Whilst the overall picture is still not clear, Michael and Nico seem quite happy with the cars at the end of today's two practice sessions.” And he added, “Tomorrow should see a dry morning, and we will start to get a better perspective. Everything ran smoothly today which is a tribute to the team, and everyone at our factories in Brackley and Brixworth has done a very good job to prepare for this first race. So far at least, it's going well.”
Hulkenberg was happy with second place, “We made the best of it and I ran on the full wets, the intermediates and the soft tyres when the track had dried out. It’s difficult to read much from the times because not everyone ran the soft tyres and there were lots of different fuel loads, but the main thing for me is that I have a good feeling with the car already.”
Third fastest man Perez commented, “We made a good improvement from the first to the second session, but it is extremely difficult to deal with today’s information as the conditions were not at all consistent. The third free practice tomorrow will be very important. We have to watch how the conditions develop and then really get everything right for qualifying.”
Alonso was fourth for Ferrari and Massa took seventh position, Vettel and Webber were 10th and 11th respectively for Red Bull. “I think obviously with the conditions it’s difficult to get a lot of running, but it was the same for all of us,” Vettel said, adding, “The little time we had in the car this afternoon was okay, but now we have to find the balance and learn a bit more about the car.”
Button and Hamilton were 15th and 16th, Button however remained optimistic, “The weather didn’t help, but it’s been the same for everyone. Overall, I think we’re quite happy, but there’ll be a lot of discussion tonight as we choose our direction for tomorrow.”
Again problems for HRT, although Karthikeyan was able to complete 16 laps, his Spanish team mate Pedro de la Rosa was not so lucky, after a quick installation lap he came in again with a problem and stayed in the garage for the remainder of the session. De la Rosa said, ”We detected a problem with the hydraulic system which forced us to stop. This is all part of the learning process, we’ve arrived here with a new car and just to have been able to get out for the second session was a feat, but we would have liked to have done more and learnt more.”
Tomorrow morning is the third and last free practice session, it is expected it will be dry this time in Melbourne, the last chance for drivers to prepare for the first official qualifying of the season which will take place in the afternoon.