Lewis Hamilton ended the first practice session for the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix fastest after a final flurry of fast laps at the flag. Nico Rosberg was second fastest, though he held the top spot for a few seconds, but ended up a second slower than the Briton. Michael Schumacher, Sergio Perez, and Kamui Kobayashi completed the fastest five in the grey session. The session began damp, began to dry, began raining again, and generally remained too damp for dry tyres or too dry for inters and generally lacking grip throughout. Mark Webber ended up sixth fastest after leading much of the uneventful session.
Friday morning was again the time for reserve drivers, as Giedo van der Garde (for Vitaly Petrov), Jules Bianchi (for Paul Di Resta), and Valteri Bottas (for Bruno Senna) stepped into a Caterham, Force India, and Willams, respectively. Still, the weekend came off to a bad start for Hamilton, who will start five places behind wherever he qualifies on Saturday due to a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. Finally, in a release hours before the Chinese on-track action began, the FIA confirmed that the F1 circus will be heading off to Bahrain for a race next weekend.
The morning began rainy but soon stopped, and the track was slowly drying minutes before the first practice session began. There was still a rush to head out, though, as Kobayashi led Kovalained, Giedo van der Garde, Vergne and others straight out onto the declared wet track. Van der Garde drove Petrov’s Caterham in his first F1 practice session. Over at Red Bull, Vettel was running an older version of the rear, with which he was comfortable, while Webber moved forward with a “slight evolution,” according to Christian Horner, of that rear end. At Caterham, both cars had new floor systems, as the team hoped the updates would bring them two or three tenths. As the track seemed too wet for slicks but too dry for inters, as Pedro de la Rosa’s HRT engineer told him, there were many installation laps, but no timed ones in the early minutes of the session.
Massa went out on the medium (softer) dry tyres, leaving Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Alonso, and Raikkonen the only men without install laps, five minutes into the session. More than five minutes later, only Hamilton circulated and times had yet to be set on the rapidly drying track. That sort of situation continued through the first third of the session, as drivers dipped out and in the pits for continued installation laps on the still-damp and chilly circuit.
1 Hour Remaining:
No times were yet set with an hour remaining in the ninety minute session. In an interview, Perez told Martin Brundle that Sauber had absolutely no new parts for this weekend. As the half hour mark passed, rain began falling lightly again, but the weather forecast indicated that it would last only momentarily. Webber (1:44.542) set the first time thirty-three minutes into the session under the falling rain. While Webber’s time rapidly fell by four second, Karthikeyan’s first time was seventeen seconds slower. Ricciardo split the two of them in a mini whirlwind of times.
A few more trickled down with the rain as the halfway point approached. At that time, Webber (1:39.558) led Grosjean, Maldonado, Ricciardo, Kovalainen, Massa, Rosberg, de la Rosa, Vergne, and Karthikeyan as both the fastest ten and the only ten men to have set times on the set and greasy track. Meanwhile, Vergne’s Toro Rosso had a rear suspension issue and he was stranded in the garage. Five minutes later, no driver remained on track as the rain lay heavily in the cold air and kept the track from either drying properly or becoming truly wet.
30 Minutes Remaining:
The final third of the session began as did the session itself, with no one in a particular hurry to waste time on a track that lacked grip and either dry or wet conditions. Alonso led the way back out, with Hulkenberg close behind. On the radio, Timo Glock’s engineer told him to be careful, adding, “no Tokyo drifting.” Meanwhile, the drizzle and lack of visibility continued. Alonso and others soldiered on, some with flow-vis paint dripping along the wings. Raikkonen set his first time on the intermediate tyre, nearly twelve seconds off Webber’s pace. With twenty minutes to go, a few other drivers managed to set times without shaking up the order drastically. Raikkonen, with only nine laps under his belt on the session learned over the radio that is DRS was not deactivating as it should when he braked, and that he should turn it off manually.
Webber (1:39.558) still led when fifteen minutes remained, followed by Grosjean, Maldonado, Ricciardo, Kovalainen, Massa, Rosberg, de la Rosa, Vergne, and Schumacher as the top ten. Hulkenberg, Perez, Raikkonen, Glock, and Karthikeyan were the only others to have set a time, with van der Garde, Pic, Bianchi, Bottas, Vettel, Alonso, Button, and Hamilton all without times at that point. As the minutes ticked away, a few more times came in, but the weather continued to put a damper on running and excitement.
10 Minutes Remaining:
The final ten minutes saw more times as teams finally saw the futility of sitting in the garage despite the odd track conditions. Lotus called Raikkonen back in, to keep him there while they investigated the DRS issue in the final minutes of the session. There was a moment of on-track excitement as Button had a twitchy Perez behind him. The former champion was on the inters, too slow, and Perez on the dry tyres in the slightly drying conditions. In the final five minutes, only Alonso, Button, and Hamilton lacked times. At the top, Webber looked to improve his time while Schumacher went fastest. The Australian did so, dropping to a 1:38.977. Hamilton’s first lap put him third fastest in the final moments while Alonso’s was good enough for only fifteenth. Hamilton next went fastest of all, crossing the line with just twelve seconds remaining. Meanwhile, teammate Button finished his only timed lap fifth fastest. At the top, Hamilton bettered his fastest time while Perez slotted into second. Rosberg had taken the top spot for a few seconds, but only long enough for Hamilton to cross the line to end the session.
Final Times for FP1, 2012 Chinese Grand Prix:
Driver Team Time Gap Laps 1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1:37.106 7 2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:38.116 1.010 14 3. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1:38.316 1.210 14 4. Sergio Perez Sauber 1:38.584 1.478 13 5. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1:38.911 1.805 12 6. Mark Webber Red Bull 1:38.977 1.871 15 7. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:39.198 2.092 12 8. Jenson Button McLaren 1:39.199 2.093 6 9. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:39.748 2.642 16 10. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:39.768 2.662 14 11. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:40.056 2.950 14 12. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:40.153 3.047 14 13. Valteri Bottas* Williams 1:40.298 3.192 8 14. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:40.328 3.222 13 15. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:40.540 3.434 12 16. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1:41.071 3.965 14 17. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:41.204 4.098 14 18. Timo Glock Marussia 1:42.330 5.224 14 19. Giedo van der Garde* Caterham 1:42.521 5.415 11 20. Jules Bianchi* Force India 1:44.118 7.012 8 21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1:44.227 7.121 10 22. Charles Pic Marussia 1:44.500 7.394 15 23. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1:47.204 10.098 12 24. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:50.465 13.359 11