Formula One returned from holiday Friday to a new course in an new venue with the same old result: Ferrari at the front. But time charts were not without surprise as Sebastian Vettel topped first free practice for the European Grand Prix at ...
Formula One returned from holiday Friday to a new course in an new venue with the same old result: Ferrari at the front. But time charts were not without surprise as Sebastian Vettel topped first free practice for the European Grand Prix at Valencia, Spain. The Scuderia Toro Rosso driver toured a newly paved street course in 1 minute, 40.496 seconds, edging Felipe Massa in a Ferrari F2008 (1:40.654). Lewis Hamilton followed for McLaren Mercedes (1:40.822), ahead of Sebastien Bourdais for STR (1:41.099).
The second session entertained a series of qualification simulations with leaps up time charts by a number of typically lower runners: Timo Glock for Toyota (1:39.967), Jenson Button for Honda (1:39.546), and, to the crowd's great enjoyment, Spaniard Fernando Alonso for Renault, who placed the R28 atop time sheets in 1:39.497.
Alonso, whose back-to-back world driving titles in 2005 and 2006 spurred interest in the series -- the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona attracting crowds of 140,000 -- to help Spain land two races this season, popped to the top with five minutes left in the session only to have defending world champion Kimi Raikkonen stick his Ferrari top with a 1:39.477 in the final moments.
Raikkonen has been vocal in his belief that qualifying position is key to race result. He put in his best lap on the harder of Bridgestone's tire choices. Alonso used the softer compound.
Massa was fourth behind Button, whose teammate Rubens Barrichello finished last in second practice, behind Bourdais. First-practice hero Vettel was 16th.
As expected, a number of drivers looped their cars as they cleared dust from the green course. But by the second session, times were within two seconds from quickest to slowest. Ferraris and McLarens showed most consistent performance near the top. Hamilton was fifth-best in the second session with teammate Heikki Kovalainen right behind. The two were third- and fifth-best, respectively, in the morning practice.
BMW Sauber drivers Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld continued middling form. Kubica fell from sixth-fastest to eighth-best from morning to afternoon. Heidfeld went from 16th to 18th.
"In the first free practice session, we concentrated on learning the new circuit," Kubica said. "The surface was still very dirty in the morning, so we had to wait until the track picked up some grip. In the second free practice, the conditions were better, although it was still quite slippery, and our main focus was on tire evaluation and basic setup work. Anyway, the track conditions were changing every 30 minutes. Because of this it is quite tricky to make a prediction for (qualifying)."
In a notable effort, Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella finished the second session in 10th spot, up from 18th in the first go as the team finally rolled out its new seamless gearbox. The Italian's teammate, Adrian Sutil, improved his time as the day wore on but fell from 13th to 17th on charts.
"It's a pretty good track, nice to drive, although it was very dirty and slippery in the morning," Fisichella said. "We had a very good second session with some quick times and made some strong progress on the setup."
Red Bull runners Mark Webber and David Coulthard, mired at the bottom of the charts after first practice, could not break into the top half in the second. They ran to 11th and 13th, respectively. Williams runners Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima similarly suffered, falling down the time sheets despite improving their times. Rosberg's 10th in the morning became 12th in the afternoon. Nakajima fell from eighth to 14th.
Toyota's Jarno Trulli put in puzzling performances, 12th and 15th from morning to afternoon as teammate Glock improved from 14th to seventh.
"It's always enjoyable to come to a new venue and I'm impressed," said Glock, fresh off Toyota's big historic weekend at Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. "It was pretty hot out there, but the track is good fun and the layout is interesting. I like street circuits because I raced on so many of them during my time racing Champ Car in America, but apart from the harbor and the buildings this doesn't really look like a street circuit because it has long straights.
"We had a good day. The first practice was a bit difficult and the track was very dusty, but we expected that. The afternoon was much better and the car got more and more into the setup window. I hope we can keep going in this direction because it has been a productive day."
Alonso's rookie teammate Nelsinho Piquet improved from 15th to ninth from morning to afternoon as the Brazilian continues to race for his job, a decision on the option clause in his contract having been put off a month, according to a report in German magazine Auto Motor und Sport.
As drivers continued to respond favorably to the street course in a revamped Valencia harbor area, many, including Grand Prix Drivers Association director Webber, say they expect safety cars to be a factor in Sunday's race.
Hamilton holds a five-point lead over Massa in the drivers' title race, 62-57. Raikkonen trails his teammate a further three points (54) with Kubica on 49 points, Heidfeld on 41 and Kovalainen on 38.
As the race meeting convened during a national mourning period for victims of Spanair Flight JIK5022, which crashed at Madrid Barajas Airport on Wednesday, taking 153 lives, McLaren Mercedes on Friday released a statement by test driver Pedro de la Rosa, which read:
"I was deeply sorry to hear about the tragedy in Madrid on Wednesday. As a Spanish citizen, my thoughts are with the people of my country and everyone who has been affected by these events. Their loss has been deeply felt throughout the whole of Spain. On behalf of the whole Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team, we wish to extend our sympathies to the families and friends of everyone who has been involved. While we need time to grieve, we must also recognize that, through sport, we can help lift people's spirits and inspire them to overcome this very sad episode."