By: Max Davies, F1 Correspondent
Maintaining his supreme form that has seen two victories in the opening races of the season, Sebastian Vettel set the fastest lap in both free practice sessions for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix.
The Red Bull driver was largely unchallenged as he continued to stamp his authority on the defence of his title. Completing 23 laps in the morning session with a best time of 1m38.739s, the German went quicker still in the later session, ending the day with a best of 1m37.688s and a total of 34 laps.
“We had a good day today, but it’s only Friday and so it’s early in the race weekend,” he declared. “We found a good rhythm and we’re happy with the car.
“There’s still a lot to do and I think it will be tight tomorrow and on Sunday, so we’ll look where we can improve. But today we had no big issues.”
Team mate Mark Webber was outpaced by Vettel during both opening sessions, the Australian finishing second in free practice 1 with a best of 1m39.354s and a total of 27 laps. The second session was a more disappointing run as Webber finished in 10th on a 1m39.327s, over 1.639s adrift of Vettel after completing 33 laps. Still concerned by the KERS problems that blighted his getaway at the start of last week’s Malaysian Grand Prix, Webber confirmed he would be discussing the issues with his team.
We'll look at KERS tonight because we'd like to run it this weekend of course
"We'll look at KERS tonight because we'd like to run it this weekend of course,” he said. "I didn't have the best P2, particularly on the short run with the new tyres, which is why my time is down a little, but the long run on the option tyre was good. Generally it was a good Friday, we learned a lot and the car was reliable."
McLaren enjoyed a productive day, albeit still some way behind the Red Bull’s with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button setting encouraging lap times in both sessions. The morning running saw Hamilton finish third on a 1m40.845s lap after 21 laps, ahead of Button who set a best of 1m40.940s and a total of 22 laps.
Second practice saw the McLaren pair close the gap to the front running Red Bull’s by over two seconds from the opening session with Hamilton edging out Button once more by little over 0.1s. Hamilton’s best time of 1m37.854s was some 0.166s adrift of Vettel while Button’s 1m37.935s lap concluded a positive day for the team.
“It’s been a busy day today,” Hamilton declared. “The car wasn’t too bad at the end of this afternoon’s session – and I was able to get a decent laptime despite not feeling totally comfortable with the car.
“We’ve been struggling a little bit with the set-up. It doesn’t feel like the car’s performing in all the areas we expected: we need to see whether the issue with the car’s balance is down to the upgrade or just an unsatisfactory set-up.
“This morning was reasonably good and the car was working well,” Button relayed on the team’s official website. “For the afternoon, we tried a few things and didn’t really improve the balance of the car, so we’re going to look at why the changes didn’t really give us the improvement we expected.
“The car felt reasonably strong on the Prime tyre but less so on the Option. So it’s not been a perfect afternoon but we have a lot of information on the changes we made, so we can hopefully work on improving the set-up tomorrow.
I don’t think the tyres will be as much of an issue to look after
“It’s not as hot as it was in Malaysia, so I don’t think the tyres will be as much of an issue to look after as they were in Malaysia. If we sort out the balance tomorrow, we’ll be closer to Red Bull.”
Ferrari endured a difficult day as the team continue to understand why their pre-season testing form has yet to translate to tangible race performance with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa finishing P1 in 12th and sixth place respectively. P2 saw both men fail to set competitive lap times once more with Massa out pacing his team mate again who ended the session down in 14th.
Mercedes enjoyed a slight resurgence as Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher continued to develop the MGP-02. Ending the opening session in 11th and 18th respectively, both men improved their lap times in P2 to end it fourth and fifth, only 0.255s away from the front.
"Today we made a small step forward, particularly this morning where we learnt some positive things with the car compared to Malaysia," Rosberg said. "The balance was quite good today, and I really enjoy driving this track. We don't really know where we are right now, and of course what everyone was doing, but today's running gives me hope for an improved performance tomorrow."
“We have changed our working approach this weekend and I think this has paid off,” Schumacher countered. “We concentrated mainly on high fuel loads and it seems we can find the setup better than starting from low fuel.\
“The long runs were good in my view, which is clearly an improvement on the first two races. There is room for further improvement, so I look forward to understanding what we can achieve in qualifying.”
Buoyed by the podium finishes by Vitaly Petrov and Nick Heidfeld in the opening two races of the season, Lotus Renault impressed once more with the German edging out his Russian team mate in P1 to claim fifth quickest, while Petrov took ninth. P2 produced closer lap times between the two as they finished eighth and ninth, with Heidfeld quicker than Petrov once more, still over two seconds off the pace.
The midfield runners maintained their performance witnessed in the opening races of the year as Toro Rosso continued their impressive pace with Force India, Williams and Sauber in close attendance.
Dragging up the rear in both sessions, Team Lotus and Marussia Virgin both headed Hispania.