The first day of Free Practice in Melbourne was interesting, if not spectacular and two organisations who appeared to be struggling in testing look in better shape than anticipated.
As well as showing good reliability all day, McLaren drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton set the top two times in the second practice session, prompting team principal Martin Whitmarsh to assert that the one second a lap gain the simulators indicated the team had found on the car was indeed real.
He said that in his opinion this puts them in the group behind Red Bull, which was very fast today on long runs and looks a formidable package. Sebastian Vettel was fourth fastest and Mark Webber fifth.
Fernando Alonso was third for Ferrari, while Michael Schumacher was sixth for Mercedes. The conditions were tricky with intermittent showers and gusty winds. The wind changed direction several times during the afternoon session.
Meanwhile the Pirelli tyres held up longer than had been feared from the tests in Spain. Button did 29 laps on a set of hard tyres in the morning session and a 12 lap long run towards the end of the session saw degradation of just one second over the stint, 2.3 seconds allowing for fuel effect.
This improved performance of the Pirellis is not altogether surprising as the Melbourne track surface has lower macro roughness than tracks like Barcelona in particular, which also has more of a
bias towards fast corners, meaning higher tyre energy.
Melbourne is a little more gentle on wear, especially at the front. The energy here is more on the rears and the drivers will have to manage that first and foremost on Sunday. Malaysia will be more of a challenge for the tyres because of the fast corners, but against that it is also quite a smooth tarmac.
It’s only Friday and we don’t know what fuel load drivers were using to set their times, but looking at how the times were arrived at, Button set his time on the fourth lap of a five lap run while Vettel set his time on the 6th lap of a seven lap run on soft tyres. But what caught the eye was an earlier 20 lap long run on hard tyres, which saw degradation from start to finish of 2.7 seconds over the stint, allowing for the effect of fuel weight lowering.
Webber set his fastest time on the fifth lap of a six lap run, Hamilton the second lap of a three lap run.
Vettel suffered what looked like a bad blister on his left front tyre and there was something going on with the left front of the Red Bull car, because the underside of the wings seemed to be getting damaged. Although the load tests on the front wings are tougher than last year and wings are deflecting less than before, the feeling is that the Red Bull is still the one with the most wing flex.
As expected the tyres are dropping a lot of marbles around the track, which will be a handicap to the racing on Sunday as it will be dirty and slippery off line.
In the final half hour of practice today the FIA carried out a test on the activation of the DRS rear wings, simulating race conditions. I spoke to Race Director Charlie Whiting afterwards and he said everything had worked as it was supposed to.
Hispania managed to do a single out lap after the mechanics had worked day and night for several days to get the cars ready. Tonio Liuzzi managed to get out of the pits right at the end of the second session. The front wing has had problems with crash tests and so the 2010 front wing is here, which the car has not been designed around, so it’s a real uphill struggle for them.
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX, Albert Park, Friday Practice
1. Button McLaren 1m25.854s 32 laps
2. Hamilton McLaren 1m25.986s + 0.132 31
3. Alonso Ferrari 1m26.001s + 0.147 28
4. Vettel Red Bull 1m26.014s + 0.160 35
5. Webber Red Bull 1m26.283s + 0.429 33
6. Schumacher Mercedes 1m26.590s + 0.736 31
7. Massa Ferrari 1m26.789s + 0.935 34
8. Perez Sauber 1m27.101s + 1.247 39
9. Barrichello Williams 1m27.280s + 1.426 34
10. Rosberg Mercedes 1m27.448s + 1.594 23
11. Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1m27.525s + 1.671 31
12. Petrov Renault 1m27.528s + 1.674 29
13. Heidfeld Renault 1m27.536s + 1.682 22
14. Buemi Toro Rosso 1m27.697s + 1.843 30
15. Kobayashi Sauber 1m28.095s + 2.241 35
16. di Resta Force India 1m28.376s + 2.522 33
17. Sutil Force India 1m28.583s + 2.729 31
18. Maldonado Williams 1m29.386s + 3.532 29
19. Kovalainen Lotus 1m30.829s + 4.975 22
20. Trulli Lotus 1m30.912s + 5.058 23
21. D’Ambrosio Virgin 1m32.106s + 6.252 36
22. Glock Virgin 1m32.135s + 6.281 30
23. Liuzzi HRT No time 1