Felipe Massa was fastest for Ferrari yesterday as Formula One’s oldest team set the pace at the sport’s newest circuit in practice for the inaugural Indian Grand Prix.
If the morning was a tale of Indian pride, stray dogs and Englishman Lewis Hamilton collecting a three place grid penalty for ignoring warning flags after setting the quickest lap, the afternoon ended a red letter day with a red car on top.
Massa’s lap was the fastest yet in the heat and dust of the barely completed US$450 million Buddh International layout, near New Delhi, clocking a best time of 1 minute, 25.706 seconds.
Double world champion Sebastian Vettel was second in both sessions on a day of huge significance for Indian motorsport, but with very little importance in a championship whose titles have already been won by the German and his Red Bull team.
Fernando Alonso reinforced Ferrari’s potential with the third fastest time in the second session after suffering a blown engine in the morning.
In keeping with the sense of history, teams hit the track for the first time with the colors of the national flag leading the way.
The first car out of the pit lane was the saffron, white and green Force India, driven by Germany’s Adrian Sutil.
It was followed closely by Team Lotus’s Indian reserve Karun Chandhok, the second Force India of Paul di Resta and then Indian racer Narain Karthikeyan in the HRT.
Chandhok, who will not race tomorrow, had the honor of setting the first timed lap.
Karthikeyan, who became the only Indian ever to score points in F1 when he was at Jordan in 2005, ended the day last on the timing screens, but comforted that his presence was what really mattered.
“It’s an emotional moment for all of us,” Force India team principal Vijay Mallya told reporters. “There was a lot of speculation about whether the track would be ready and the event has had its fair share of controversy after what happened with the Commonwealth Games, but we’re ready. It’s a great track and the drivers love it.”
A large black stray dog appeared on the main pit straight, one of the longest in the sport, shortly before the first session was due to start.
Another appeared minutes into the action, causing practice to be red-flagged for safety reasons for five minutes while the offending canine was rounded up.
Hamilton set a best lap of 1 minute, 26.836 seconds right at the end of that session to deny Vettel and Red Bull’s Australian Mark Webber an immediate one-two on the timesheets, but fell foul of the stewards who imposed his sixth penalty of the season.
They ruled the 2008 champion and Sauber’s Mexican Sergio Perez had both ignored waved double yellow flags warning that a car was being recovered by marshals working close to the track.
The penalty meant Hamilton, sporting a helmet with the image of the late reggae star Bob Marley on top, could no longer hope to start on pole position for a second successive race.
There were no dogs to delay matters in the afternoon, but the session was again red-flagged when Belgian Jerome D’Ambrosio crashed his Virgin heavily.
Many of the drivers’ cars and helmets carried the logos and numbers of British racer Dan Wheldon and Italian MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli.