Lewis Hamilton continued at Interlagos on Friday where he left off in Texas last Sunday by setting the pace in opening free practice for this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix title showdown.
On a day of soaring heat and rising tension, the 27-year-old Briton clocked a best lap time in 1 minute, 14.026 seconds to outpace defending champion German Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull.
Vettel, who leads the title race by 13 points ahead of today’s finale, only needs to finish in the top four to become the youngest triple world champion in Formula One history.
His only rival for the title, two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, was fifth fastest, separated from the front pair by Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Australian Mark Webber and his own in-form Ferrari teammate and local hero Felipe Massa.
Vettel was three-10ths of a second slower than Hamilton while Webber, Massa and Alonso were so closely matched that they were separated by just 0.007 seconds at the end of the afternoon session.
The defending champion was mindful of the forecasts for unpredictable weather with heavy rainstorms last night and today.
“It was very slippery for everyone, quite hot today and in terms of track conditions not that easy. So everyone suffered the same kind of problems — track, stability and so on — so we have to do our homework now no matter what the weather forecast says,” Vettel said.
Asked if he felt confident he could clinch his third title, he said: “We will see. It is a bit unknown what is going to come. So far we can be happy. We have to do our homework and improve the car, there is a lot still to come.”
“Obviously we don’t know what the weather is going to do. Today is incredibly hot, tomorrow is supposed to be hot with maybe some rain, and Sunday [today] a bit cooler — this is Sao Paulo so it could be anything,” Vettel added.
Hamilton, who won the US Grand Prix in Austin last weekend, and won the 2008 title in dramatic fashion at Interlagos, topped the times in both sessions and looked supremely confident and fast in his 110th and final race for McLaren before his impending move to Mercedes next season.
He showed his emotion by reportedly bursting into tears during a television interview on Thursday and by adding the slogan “Thank You McLaren” to his bright yellow helmet.
Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher was sixth fastest for Mercedes, in his final Friday practice session before heading off into retirement at the age of 43 and with tributes ringing in his ears.
His Mercedes teammate and fellow-German Nico Rosberg was seventh, ahead of Hamilton’s McLaren teammate and compatriot Jenson Button, Frenchman Romain Grosjean of Lotus and Briton Paul Di Resta of Force India.
After a warm, bright morning, the afternoon session was run in hot, dry early summer weather with the air temperature rising to 33oC and the track temperature into the mid-40oCs, conditions that meant tires had to be treated with great respect.
The track peaked at 49oC.
However, a weather forecast of heavy rain due to arrive late yesterday and into the weekend, posed questions for the teams’ set-ups, with some opting for more downforce than others.