McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton claimed his car was back to its 2008 championship-winning best after leading yesterday’s practice at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Hamilton set the best time of the day, ahead of Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg. Their teammates, Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher, were third and fourth fastest.
“It’s reminiscent of 2008 kind of balance and hopefully that will enable us to be competitive tomorrow in qualifying,” Hamilton said, recalling his title-winning year.
After botched qualifying sessions in Australia and Malaysia, Hamilton was eyeing a front-row grid spot and a chance to claim his first win of the season.
“In the past two races, our race pace was good, but we had to come from too far back,” Hamilton said. “Ideally tomorrow we’d like to get into Q3 and have a top five start, which will enable us to have a competitive run for the win.”
The Red Bull cars of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were fifth and sixth yesterday, though their pace in the longer runs was similar to McLaren. The team is aiming for back-to-back one-two finishes, both this season and in China.
“It looks very close. The Mercedes look competitive, as well as the McLarens and Ferraris,” Vettel said. “It will be tight tomorrow, but we will see.”
Championship leaders Ferrari had Fernando Alonso in 10th and Felipe Massa in 11th, with the mediocre times possibly indicating that the Italian team were testing their high fuel settings ahead of tomorrow’s race.
Of more concern was the failure of Alonso’s engine in the opening practice, with the Spaniard parking the car trackside in a billow of smoke and with flames from the exhaust.
The engine was the one used in practice and qualifying at the season opener in Bahrain. The team elected to use it again this weekend following a similar engine blowout at the previous race in Malaysia.
That reversion to a used engine indicated the team was already concerned about getting through the 19-race season on just eight engines, as the rules stipulate.
Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi had a more alarming mechanical issue in first practice when his two front wheels flew off simultaneously upon braking at the end of the main straight.
The Swiss driver was unhurt, but agitated when he returned to the garage, having an animated discussion with race engineers about a malfunction that could have had far more serious consequences.
“I braked, the wheels came off and that was it,” Buemi said. “Physically I was fine, but I have to say I am extremely disappointed that, once again, through no fault of my own, I have been unable to run for almost all of the three hours available.”
Toro Rosso said the failure was of the right “upright” — the device that attaches the wheel to the suspension — and the left one gave way immediately because of added stress. It was a new part fitted for this race. The team reverted to the old uprights for second practice, though Buemi’s car was too damaged for him to participate.
Mercedes had a superficially strong showing yesterday, close to McLaren’s times, but the team was not heralding a victory challenge in China.
“I am quite confident for the rest of the weekend, even if the overall ranking will not change much from the first three races,” Schumacher said.