Michael Schumacher topped the time sheets this afternoon in the drier of the two practice sessions, but the indications from the long runs and analysis of lap times is that McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton is the man to beat this weekend. The McLaren driver has confirmed that he will have to move five places back on the grid from where he qualifies, due a forced gearbox change, but in terms of car pace he looked the fastest today.
Hamilton set the fastest time in the damp morning session and then finished second behind Schumacher in the afternoon session, with the Red Bull pair of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber also looking consistently fast. They will be hoping to hold Hamilton behind them in the race on Sunday, presuming both are ahead of him on the grid after his penalty.
McLaren have several updates here this weekend, a modified front wing, some changes to the floor and rear wing also. All the drivers were experimenting with the softer Pirelli tyre, looking to see how it will deliver the optimum lap time. It seems to be between 6/10ths and 8/10ths of a second per lap faster than the medium, but it also seems to be tough to warm up in the chilly conditions experienced today. Some drivers found it gave the fastest time on the second lap, others did a fast lap, then a slow one and then found the time on the third lap on the tyre. There was also quite a bit of tyre scrubbing going on, indicating that teams may find a scrubbed set of tyres better than a new set.
Judging from the difference between the fastest lap times and the long run times, the gap was smaller for McLaren than Mercedes – it looked like Hamilton’s car was probably a little heavier than Schumacher’s when the fast lap times was set and the extra power of the DRS on the Mercedes also accounts for some of the difference as well, as they didn’t use the DRS on the race simulation runs near the end of the session.
The McLaren has the edge on long run pace, as Hamilton – the only two time winner of this race – acknowledged, “It’s the race I’m focusing on a little bit more than qualifying compared to the other races and we are improving consistency and the way we look after the tyres,” he said.
“The car is looking very good. We have a few improvements to make to the balance but hopefully we will be there or thereabouts.”
Having come through yesterday’s protest unscathed, Mercedes look quite confident this weekend and once again Schumacher was the man on form. He looks like a contender for the front row and maybe even pole this weekend, given Hamilton’s penalty, especially with Jenson Button struggling to find the right set up in the second McLaren. He found it hard to deal with the understeer which several drivers encountered with the cool track temperatures.
Red Bull experimented today with two different exhaust settings; Vettel ran the older specification that was used for most of the winter testing, with the inboard exhausts, while Webber used the version which has been used at the first two races, with the exhausts set wider in the rear bodywork. There was little to choose between them, indicating that the decision is as much about driver feel and confidence as anything else.
Despite a suite of small aerodynamic upgrades, the Ferrari looks to be in a bit of trouble here; it seems to be struggling with getting the tyres to work and also its straight line speeds are down compared with the others. Once again Massa is struggling more than Alonso, on a track where Massa had one of his most competitive outings last season. Still looking for his first point of the season, the Brazilian has work to do to find it here this weekend. He said on Thursday that he has spent a lot of time in Maranello preparing this race in great detail, no wonder he looked very disappointed after practice today. “I’ve started (the season) in a horrible way,” he said on Thursday. “I want to go back to being a man who is happy when he drives.”
Meanwhile Ferrari’s reserve driver, Jules Bianchi, had his first of a dozen Friday morning outings for Force India this season. It was a rather frustrating session due to the damp conditions and with the team not wanting to take any risks, it meant that he managed only 8 laps.
Timo Glock was going well in the updated Marussia in the afternoon, when he suffered an odd accident when the front wing came detached as he braked from 195mph to 135 mph for Turn 1. He ended up in the barriers, the only major incident of the afternoon.
Many drivers suffered front wheel lock ups under heavy braking for Turn 14, quite a few of them flat spotted a tyre as a result and savage vibrations on Sergio Perez’ Sauber showed the risks of doing that in qualifying or the race.
CHINESE GRAND PRIX, Shanghai, Free Practice
1. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m35.973 32
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m36.145s + 0.172 29
3. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m36.160s + 0.187 26
4. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m36.433s + 0.460 23
5. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m36.617s + 0.644 30
6. Jenson Button McLaren 1m36.711s + 0.738 27
7. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m36.956s + 0.983 28
8. Paul di Resta Force India 1m36.966s + 0.993 30
9. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1m37.191s + 1.218 30
10. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m37.316s + 1.343 32
11. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m37.417s + 1.444 22
12. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m37.616s + 1.643 33
13. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m37.836s + 1.863 30
14. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m37.930s + 1.957 31
15. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m37.972s + 1.999 25
16. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m38.176s + 2.203 34
17. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m38.293s + 2.320 30
18. Bruno Senna Williams 1m38.783s + 2.810 37
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1m38.990s + 3.017 36
20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1m39.346s + 3.373 19
21. Timo Glock Marussia 1m39.651s + 3.678 15
22. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1m40.343s + 4.370 24
23. Charles Pic Marussia 1m40.753s + 4.780 30
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m41.125s + 5.162 26