Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
Michael Schumacher kicked off his 20 years of Formula One celebration with the fastest time during the morning practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. But the seven-times World Champion was lucky, as he and his team colleague Nico Rosberg were the only two drivers who could make a flying lap on a dry circuit. During his three laps Schumacher recorded a fastest time of 1m54.355s while Rosberg was 0.474s slower than his compatriot which earned him second place..
Right after the Mercedes duo had set their time the skies above the Ardennes circuit opened and prevented other drivers from beating a time set on a dry circuit. Jarno Trulli and Adrian Sutil did try to set a time when the first raindrops fell, but it was already too late and after Sutil had almost lost control of his Force India, both drivers returned to the pit and no other driver could match the times of the Mercedes team.
The rain continued for another 20 minutes and all drivers stayed in the garage, and some even got out of their car to discuss the situation with their mechanics. After the rain had stopped, Sebastian Vettel was the first to venture onto the soaking wet track on intermediate tyres but came back into the pit again without setting a timed lap. Next to try was Lewis Hamilton, he also went out on the intermediates but also returned to the pits after he had a major moment in the very fast Blanchimont corner.
It was then Sutil’s turn and the German was the first to set a timed lap in these atrocious conditions and posted a time of 2m16.282s. Fernando Alonso was the first Ferrari driver to go out, but immediately returned to the pit lane. Spa is always tricky in rainy conditions and for a number of drivers Turn 9 was the favorite spot to temporarily leave the track. Sutil already had a big moment there, but it was Bruno Senna, who replaces Nick Heidfeld at the Lotus Renault team in Belgium and Italy, who became the first victim when he spun off at Turn 9 and crashed backwards into the tyre barrier.
The session wasn’t stopped but yellow flags were waved while marshals were working hard to retrieve the stranded Lotus Renault, seventy minutes into the session the track was all clear again and the race for the fastest lap continued.
Both Red Bull drivers went out again, but the condition were still tricky and although Vettel tried hard, he landed a disappointing fourth place after the chequered flag was waved to end the session. Mark Webber also had a few hairy moments, decided not to push his luck and he ended the morning in 16th place with a time of 2m09.792.
Turn 9 claimed another victim, this time it was Paul di Resta who ended up in the barrier sideways while trying to improve his lap time. The Scot got out of his Force India unscathed but this time the session was stopped. Stewarts decided the clock would keep on ticking during the red flag period Finally with only 10 minutes to go the session was restarted and Hamilton was the first to go out again as he had still not recorded a timed lap. By then the circuit started to dry and the lap times proved it, drivers were constantly improving their times. Hamilton finally squeezed out a lap of 2m04.301s, good for an overall fifth position.
Jenson Button crossed the finish line in a well-earned third place, thus actually being the fastest driver in the wet as the Mercedes pair had set their time on a dry track. Felipe Massa was the fastest Ferrari driver and landed seventh position, while his Spanish team colleague finished in 11th spot. Sutil had been fast all morning and finished in sixth place, another noteworthy performance for the young German.
The midfield was dominated by Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams, further down the chart Trulli took a surprising 13th place for Team Lotus and thus was the fastest of the new teams. The other Team Lotus driver Karun Chandhok, who replaced Heikki Kovalainen during the morning session didn’t get further than 21st place.
Lotus Renault driver Vitaly Petrov also wasn’t in a hurry this morning, and after completing 10 laps ended up on 22nd place, while Senna ended the morning in the tyres and took 23rd position.
No conclusion can be draw when viewing the lap times of the first free practice session, in fact, teams had hoped to test new aero parts but that became a pointless exercise in these conditions. McLaren had a new rear wing that was developed to get the maximum extra speed from the DRS system, but will have to test it again as Hamilton and Button only lapped the circuit 7 and 8 times respectively this morning.
Rain is again expected for the second free practice session and again the main task for the drivers will be to set a good time without crashing or damaging the car for the all important Saturday qualifying session.