P1: Schumacher makes case for Mercedes
Michael tops opening session at Monza as Alonso suffers engine worry
Last Updated: September 7, 2012 12:41pm
With McLaren and Mercedes believed to be fighting a tug-of-war battle for Lewis Hamilton's services, how appropriate that the two teams ended Practice One for the Italian GP locked together at the top of the timesheets - albeit led by the driver expected to lose out if Hamilton does transfer his talents.
Hamilton's future remains the foremost topic of conversation in the Monza paddock and the sight of Mercedes, a fading force this season since winning in China four months ago, rediscovering their zest will have done little to douse the fire of speculation that the 2008 World Champion is considering making the gamble of his career.
That it was Schumacher who led the way in signalling that Mercedes will be a force to be reckoned with this weekend was something of a irony given that he is the likely fallguy if Hamilton does transfer out of McLaren. But the seven-times World Champion has never been one to shirk from a fight and his lap of 1:25.422 was three-tenths faster than his closest challenger, Jenson Button.
With the characteristics of the Monza circuit correlating to the strengths of their car, the Brackley outfit have been widely tipped to impress on a track which is strong on power but short of the type of long corners that have corrosively eaten into the W03's tyres this term. First impressions can often be misleading, but the sight of Schumacher topping the timesheets, with only Button sandwiched between the German and his team-mate compatriot Nico Rosberg, would suggest that those optimistic forecasts are not without foundation.
"I think it's clear to see that the Mercedes look strong here," summarised Anthony Davidson from the Sky Sports F1 commentary box. "They are already up there."
For once, Hamilton was a muted presence throughout the session, finishing sixth, but at least he did not suffer the sort of quiet shutdown that befell World Championship leader Fernando Alonso when his F2012 - repackaged following the battering his previous chassis took at Spa five days ago - rolled to a powerless halt at the end of the back-straight.
The Spaniard is believed to have shut down the car's engine of his own volition after hearing a strange noise while downshifting approaching the first chicane, therefore ensuring the unit - which is likely to have been nearing the end of its life in any case - can be analysed back at Ferrari's factory.
Pastor Maldonado, for whom misfortune has become a constant companion since F1's post-summer reunion, was another driver to endure a technical malfunction with his Williams breaking down with a hydraulics fault towards the close of the session.
Red Bull, as tends to be their way, gave little away, with Sebastian Vettel only completing 18 laps - Hamilton, for illustration, completed 30 - and Mark Webber only embarking on a sustained run as the clocked ticked down to the session's close. That left the way clear for Alonso, before his premature exit from proceedings, and Felipe Massa to promote Ferrari to Mercedes and McLaren's closest challengers in the timesheets.
Of rather more wide-reaching significance, however, was the name propping up the timesheets with Ma Qing Hua making history as the first Chinese-born driver to participate in a grand prix weekend.
For 1.3 billion people, F1 has just become a lot more interesting.