Nancy Knapp Schilke, F1 correspondent
Nico Rosberg laid down the fastest lap time in the two Friday practice sessions for this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix. After taking his first FIA Formula One victory this past Sunday in China, the German was back in the cockpit of his Mercedes W03 on this hot sunny day. Rosberg’s best lap of 1:32.816 was set toward the end of the afternoon practice when he and his main rivals were trading off the top spot.
"That was a good start to the weekend, and whilst it's nice to be quickest today, we know that doesn't count. The most important thing still is to improve our race pace. For the moment, it looks reasonable but we need to analyse where we are on high fuel levels compared to our competitors and draw our conclusions. The conditions are really tough out there, so the race will be quite demanding from the tyre perspective," Rosberg said.
His Mercedes teammate Michael Schumacher was fifth with a 1:33.862, and like Rosberg, he too turned his best lap in practice two. Schumacher commented, "We started well today, and our long runs are satisfying as well as our overall times. Unfortunately I could not complete my fast lap properly due to traffic. We will have to see what the outcome will be tomorrow and on Sunday as the tyres go away very quickly. You really have to stay within the limit of them, that's going to be the main issue."
Second fastest on the Sakhir circuit belonged to Mark Webber with a 1:33.262, and taking third was his Red Bull Racing teammate, Sebastian Vettel. The team is still searching for their first win this season and both seemed to be in better spirits after today’s practices.
“It was quite challenging out on track, trying to get everything together. The tyres were a bit of a surprise for everybody in terms of how they are behaving, they’re losing their grip pretty quick, but that's the same for everybody,” said Webber.
The German two-time world champion has not had a happy new year, and ended in the top three on Friday could be a good sign. Vettel’s best lap was a 1:33.525, and he said, “We did a lot of running today, so that’s good. Regarding set-up, I think we got the answers in China that we were looking for and that’s helped us here. We now need to see where we are against what everyone else did today. I think others are the favourites this weekend, but we are focusing on ourselves and pushing hard. We made a step forward, but we see where we are tomorrow.”
Lewis Hamilton set the best lap time of 1:33.572 in the morning practice, and in practice two, his best was a 1:33.747 which left the McLaren driver fourth for the day. “Looking after the tyres here is going to be a real challenge. The track surface is extremely hot, and the amount of energy that goes through the tyres under braking is incredible: the temperatures keep on rising until it feels just like driving on an ice-rink,” he said.
Along with the heat, the gusty winds and dust flying in the air add to the challenge that the racers will have to deal with over the next few days. There is a surface layer of sand placed on the asphalt and any movement by the speed of a car or a light wind can cause a fine layer of sand dust to float in the air and land in unexpected places on the 5.412km (3.363 miles) track. Hamilton added, “Tyre degradation will be a big issue for everyone around here and the weekend will be all about who can look after the tyres the best. Wind direction also played a huge role today. On one lap, there’d be a headwind going into Turn Four, the next lap, it’d be a tailwind, then a crosswind. And that makes a big difference around the circuit. I think my fastest lap was set half an hour after Nico [Rosberg] set the fastest time of the session, and the wind was very different.”