Lewis Hamilton set the pace in opening practice for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix on Friday morning, despite spending most of the session in the garage and posting his first timed lap with less than 10 of the 90 minutes remaining.
The Briton kept his powder dry while the McLaren mechanics switched the rear wing on his MP4-25 to the latest version, and then took advantage of improving grip levels to set an impressive sequence of quick laps in the closing stages.
Robert Kubica was an excellent second fastest for Renault ahead of Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Jenson Button (McLaren) – but the times were largely academic in a session that was all about getting acquainted with the hastily completed new Korea International Circuit.
The newly laid track surface proved even dustier and more slippery than expected to begin with, leaving drivers scrabbling for any measure of grip and returning to the pits after their installation laps with tyres covered in a thick coating of dirt.
But eventually with enough cars laying down rubber the surface did begin to offer up some grip, and lap times fell steadily from near the 2m mark to Hamilton’s best of 1m40.887s – somewhat faster than the pre-event simulations had predicted.
Championship leader Mark Webber topped the timing charts for 15 minutes in the middle of the session, but was later shuffled back to seventh place behind the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher and ahead of Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld.
Both Williams drivers went well, particularly Nico Hulkenberg who had two spells at the top of the order before slipping to ninth ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello.
Button gave the first indication of McLaren’s pace when he knocked Vettel off the top spot at the one-hour mark, and when Hamilton finally emerged the team-mates briefly traded fastest time before Lewis moved more than a second clear.
This afternoon’s session should provide a more meaningful guide to form, though, provided no oil seeps through the fresh asphalt and the track continues to rubber in.
The 3.5-mile layout is an interesting mix of a stop-go first sector made up of three long straights linked by slow corners (suiting McLaren and Renault); a flowing middle sector comprising mainly fast and medium-speed switchbacks (playing to Red Bull’s strengths); and a tight, sinuous final sector ending in a dicey blind curve onto the pit straight that can just about be taken flat-out.
As they explored the best lines and the limits of adhesion, many if not most drivers had minor off-course moments, with turns one, nine and 11 (a downhill, decreasing radius left-hander) proving particularly tricky.
The most dramatic incident befell Bruno Senna, whose Hispania arrived at the very quick turn seven facing backwards with its left-rear suspension apparently having given way. After a wild spin the Brazilian brought his car safely to a halt without hitting any barriers.
Korean Grand Prix free practice session one timesWorld championship leader Mark Webber gained the psychological advantage over his title rivals by ending the opening day’s practice in Korea on top of the timesheet.
The Red Bull driver shaded Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso by 0.2s in a hotly contested afternoon session, with morning pace-setter Lewis Hamilton 0.1s further back in third place.
Robert Kubica (Renault) and Felipe Massa (Ferrari) were interlopers among the title-contending quintet, finishing fourth and sixth respectively and sandwiching Jenson Button in fifth and Sebastian Vettel in seventh.
The top 12 was completed by Renault’s Vitaly Petrov, the two Mercedes (Nico Rosberg ninth and Michael Schumacher 12th) and the Sauber duo (Kamui Kobayashi pipping Nick Heidfeld to 10th).
Track conditions were much better than in the morning and the surface yielded progressively more grip as rubber was laid down, although frequent off-course excursions meant there was still plenty of dust and dirt to contend with.
Webber’s best time of 1m37.942s was almost three seconds inside Hamilton’s morning benchmark and represented an average speed of 128mph around the varied 3.5-mile Hermann Tilke-designed layout.
All the title contenders topped the times at some point during the session, with Alonso laying down the initial marker before Hamilton, Button and Vettel (the first to go out on soft ‘option’ tyres) took turns to head the field.
Webber, Hamilton and Alonso continued to trade the fastest time until the Red Bull driver took command with a little under 20 minutes remaining.
Button’s progress was set back at the halfway point when his McLaren began to overheat at the rear and had to be cooled with fire extinguishers when he brought it back to the pits.
A lengthy delay while the car was attended to meant the reigning champion wasn’t able to get in a soft tyre run until the final 10 minutes of the session, when the track was at its busiest.
The new circuit continued to prove a good challenge while being sufficiently forgiving to allow drivers to test the limits by running wide across the various asphalt aprons, Astroturf and grassy verges – which almost everyone did at one stage or another.
One incident that highlighted a potential issue for the race occurred when Sakon Yamamoto spun coming out of the penultimate corner, leaving his HRT stranded in a fast, blind section of track bordered by concrete walls on either side.
Officials had no alternative but to halt the session while the car was retrieved, and a similar incident during the race would inevitably require the safety car to be deployed.
Mechanical problems struck Bruno Senna – who only managed to complete three laps following his morning dramas – and Tonio Liuzzi, who parked his Force India by the trackside near the end of the session.
1 HAMILTON McLaren 1m40.887s
2 KUBICA Renault 1m40.968s
3 ROSBERG Mercedes 1m41.152s
4 VETTEL Red Bull 1m41.371s
5 BUTTON McLaren 1m41.940s
6 SCHUMACHER Mercedes 1m42.022s
7 WEBBER Red Bull 1m42.202s
8 HEIDFELD Sauber 1m42.293s
9 HULKENBERG Williams 1m42.678s
10 BARRICHELLO Williams 1m42.883s
11 PETROV Renault 1m42.896s
12 MASSA Ferrari 1m43.054s
13 KOBAYASHI Sauber 1m43.309s
14 SUTIL Force India 1m43.602s
15 ALONSO Ferrari 1m43.928s
16 BUEMI Toro Rosso 1m43.940s
17 LIUZZI Force India 1m44.887s
18 ALGUERSUARI Toro Rosso 1m45.141s
19 GLOCK Virgin 1m45.588s
20 D’AMBROSIO Virgin 1m46.613s
21 KOVALAINEN Lotus 1m47.115s
22 YAMAMOTO HRT 1m50.347s
23 SENNA HRT 1m50.821s
24 TRULLI Lotus 1m51.701s
Korean Grand Prix free practice session two times
1 WEBBER Red Bull 1m37.942s
2 ALONSO Ferrari 1m38.132s
3 HAMILTON McLaren 1m38.279s
4 KUBICA Renault 1m38.718s
5 BUTTON McLaren 1m38.726s
6 MASSA Ferrari 1m38.820s
7 VETTEL Red Bull 1m39.204s
8 PETROV Renault 1m39.267s
9 ROSBERG Mercedes 1m39.268s
10 KOBAYASHI Sauber 1m39.564s
11 HEIDFELD Sauber 1m39.588s
12 SCHUMACHER Mercedes 1m39.598s
13 BARRICHELLO Williams 1m39.812s
14 LIUZZI Force India 1m39.881s
15 SUTIL Force India 1m39.971s
16 HULKENBERG Williams 1m40.478s
17 ALGUERSUARI Toro Rosso 1m40.578s
18 BUEMI Toro Rosso 1m40.896s
19 KOVALAINEN Lotus 1m42.773s
20 TRULLI Lotus 1m42.801s
21 GLOCK Virgin 1m43.115s
22 DI GRASSI Virgin 1m44.039s
23 YAMAMOTO HRT 1m45.166s
24 SENNA HRT 1m46.649s