Ah, Spa. In case the Formula One circus had misplaced the GPS, rain tore down Friday morning with a big Welcome to Spa message in the Belgian Ardennes during practice for Sunday's Grand Prix of Belgium. The race course placed at the intersection...
Ah, Spa. In case the Formula One circus had misplaced the GPS, rain tore down Friday morning with a big Welcome to Spa message in the Belgian Ardennes during practice for Sunday's Grand Prix of Belgium. The race course placed at the intersection of villages Malmedy, Stavelot and Francorchamps -- destinations all for taking the cure at, of course, spas -- in the 1920s might be shorter by half than in former days, but at 4.3 miles it continues to astound and perplex.
Rain, always in the forecast, allowed early runners -- fastest among them Toyota's Jarno Trulli -- dry track in morning practice before washing across the longest course on the 17-race tour. By afternoon, sun greeted drivers looking to set up cars, figure out tires, and adjust new parts for Saturday qualifying.
Fernando Alonso for Renault, Mark Webber for Red Bull, and Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes McLaren were the afternoon's fast attackers. They took turns at the top of timesheets, musical chairslike. Hamilton, who didn't post a time during the morning session, took quick tours early, dropped away, then ended the session quickest, at 1 minute, 47.201 seconds, just ahead of Toyota's Timo Glock. Kimi Raikkonen followed for Ferrari, then Webber, and Alonso's new teammate Romain Grosjean.
Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella, Trulli, BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica, and Toro Rosso teenager Jaime Alguersuari completed the top 10. Alonso, alas, ended the day 14th on timesheets, a spot behind Force India's Adrian Sutil. Force India arrived with a new rear wing for added downforce.
McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh entered the weekend on record that the course doesn't favor his cars' strengths. Apparently, he didn't tell his No. 1 driver. His No. 2 got word: Heikki Kovalainen ended the day 12th quick.
The course requires the season's first shift from high to low downforce measures, according to BMW Sauber's Willy Rampf. He cites lap length for Spa offering limited race strategies. Cool temperatures always affect tire grip. Nick Heidfeld gripped 16th spot by time.
The Red Bull RB5 emerges as best-suited for downforce demands. Webber, whose runner-up driver chase status fell to third last weekend when race-winning Brawn GP's Rubens Barrichello reclaimed the spot, did his bit to meet expectations. The Australian held top time for much of the afternoon session.
Webber teammate Sebastian Vettel, whose second place in driver standings has fallen to fourth in the past three races, didn't post a time in the morning to spare wear on his Renault engine. The German, landing on the 10th-best time by day's end, suffered two engine failures a week ago at the Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia, Spain. For the season, his RB5 has gone through half its eight engine allotment. Team principal Christian Horner, keeping track, said Vettel has two used and two new models left. "We can't afford another failure," Horner said. Renault has said "sorry." Reporters have said Mercedes is in the frame for a fourth engine contract next season, happy to add Red Bull to McLaren, Brawn GP and Force India commitments.
Toyota, finding early season form elusive, brought revised front and rear wings, and new engines for the course technical chief Pascal Vasselon says exerts "extreme forces." Toyota silly season talk is premature because the Japanese carmaker-backed team must wait for a budget, to be approved in November, until they can determine who will or will not drive for them next year. Or if indeed the company will be involved in Formula One next year. Despite the boost received from the Cash for Clunkers program in the United States, the world's top carmaker announced this week it will shut production at one plant in Japan for a year. Discussions continue on whether a UK plant will shut.
Alguersuari's posting at ninth fails to take in his presence among the top five for a bit of the afternoon session. His Toro Rosso running mate, Sebastien Buemi, took an early spin but managed to finish 11th by day's end. They remain the youngest team in the draw.
Wither Brawn GP? Championship leader Jenson Button finished 17th ahead of Barrichello in 18th, not the confidence boost sought. The Englishman has taken a hiding in the English press of late. After winning six of the first seven races, Button has been off the podium since Turkey, five races ago. The former Honda team come to the Ardennes knowing tire temperature issues have hampered their progress.
Also down timewise were the Williams F1 entrants. Kazuki Nakajima was 15th quick and Nico Rosberg 19th. Rosberg is object of talk that he is McLaren-bound. He acknowledges they are hovering round, as are others. Always nice to be prettiest at the dance.
Most consistent driver Friday was the much-abused Luca Badoer. The veteran Ferrari tester stepping in for injured Michael Schumacher, who was stepping in for injured Felipe Massa, was two seconds off the pace. Badoer held down the bottom of time charts all day. And he brought out a red flag early in the second session when a wheel cover came off his F60. Critics among the press have lashed Badoer. As many replacements have been suggested for him as constitute the rest of the field.
If practice times determine little about qualifying to come, one time determined Friday came in an announcement that start time for the Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi, the season-ender on Nov. 1, will shift to 5 p.m. local. That delayed start time should end the race at dusk, a shift that didn't go that well at the season-starting Grand Prix of Australia. Stay tuned.