World champion Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time in opening practice on Friday for Sunday’s Chinese Formula One Grand Prix, marking a welcome return to competitiveness for his McLaren team.
Hamilton’s best time of one minute, 37,334 seconds at the Shanghai International Circuit was a tenth of a second faster than championship leader Jenson Button, with Button’s Brawn teammate Rubens Barrichello third fastest.
McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen was fourth quickest, indicating McLaren had been able to sharply improve a car that was well off the pace in the opening two races in Australia and Malaysia.
McLaren was thought to be using a new diffuser this weekend, in response to a court ruling midweek that deemed the diffusers of Brawn, Toyota and Williams were legal. That ruling had forced other teams to play catch-up and attempt to emulate the diffusers of those teams, which greatly aid downforce.
The McLaren performance was a welcome piece of good news for the team after a dismal start to the season. It was disqualified from the Australian results for deliberately misleading stewards. That had prompted the sacking of its sporting director and an offer of resignation by team principal Martin Whitmarsh, while his longtime predecessor Ron Dennis stood aside from his role with the F1 team on Thursday.
Mark Webber was fifth quickest in his Red Bull. The Toyota pair of Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock were sixth and eighth best respectively, sandwiching Williams’ Nico Rosberg in seventh.
Trulli, third in the championship after two races, set the best early times before a reliability failure which slowed his car to a crawl about a third of the way into the session, forcing him to limp back to the pits. The Italian returned to the track late in the session.
Friday’s session was the first opportunity for teams to test the parts they had changed in the two-week break since the previous race in Malaysia, due to this year’s ban on in-season testing.
Aside from the diffuser improvements and other aerodynamic changes, Ferrari has jettisoned the Kers energy-boost technology, after experiencing a failure at Malaysia. While the removal would cost the Ferraris speed off the grid and down the very long Shanghai straight, the reduced weight should make it more lithe through the corners.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa were only 11th and 15th on the timesheets in Friday’s opening session.
By contrast, BMW’s Robert Kubica had added the Kers device to his car, having forgone it in Australia and Malaysia because of its weight. He was a lowly 18th fastest on the timesheets. — Sapa-AP