Japan P2: Webber tops tight session
Red Bull and McLaren dominate again; Lotus and Mercedes run into problems; Schumacher and di Resta crash out at Spoon
By James Galloway. Last Updated: 05/10/12 8:22am
The Japanese Grand Prix looks set to play host to another tense battle between Red Bull and McLaren this weekend after the two title-chasing teams dominated the Friday afternoon practice session at Suzuka.
Mark Webber may have been off-colour since his victory at Silverstone in July but the Australian showed he could be ready to make an overdue return to form by outpacing the lead McLaren of Lewis Hamilton by 0.213s, with World Champion Sebastian Vettel third in the second Red Bull.
"There's not much to choose between Red Bull and McLaren at all."
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"We executed the plans we wanted to do and it was a pretty smooth Friday. We know we have work to do, nobody is dominant at the moment," Webber told Sky Sports F1 immediately after the session.
Indeed, while Friday's timesheets may point to there being little to choose between the two current pacesetting teams on single-lap pace, McLaren do believe that they hold a slight advantage over the longer runs - Lewis Hamilton's engineer informing him that he was lapping one tenth faster than Vettel in the closing minutes with both cars believed to be running similar fuel loads.
As for the would-be challengers, though, the picture appears somewhat less rosy after Lotus and Mercedes both endured particularly torrid afternoons.
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After a disappointing run of form since the summer break, Lotus have targeted this weekend to revive their season but yet again appear to be shooting themselves in the foot: the team removing the much vaulted double DRS system on Kimi Raikkonen's E20 for P2 - although it may return for Saturday morning's session - and then running into KERS problems on the same car.
That latter problem, caused by an overheating battery, rendered the title-chasing Finn's car 'unsafe' and forced him into the garage after just seven laps - where he stayed for all but the final minutes of the session.
But while the Enstone team could at least point to a strong afternoon for their other car with Romain Grosjean finishing in a solid sixth place, rivals Mercedes, back to business on Friday after all the fanfare of the Hamilton announcement last week, had less to cheer as the reality of their ongoing struggle to establish themselves at the front descended on the team again.
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Both Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher experienced delayed starts to the session due to an engine change and suspension set-up tweaks respectively and then, with neither driver showing much in the way of single-lap pace, the latter crashed out in the closing minutes after an error entering Spoon Curve.
Schumacher's third such accident in a P2 session in recent months is sure to give further fuel to suggestions that he has decided to call time on his career at the right time. However, it is worth noting that the German veteran wasn't the only one to fall foul of Suzuka's unforgiving nature.
Force India's Paul di Resta had earlier committed a virtually identical mistake entering the fast left-hander in the opening minutes of running, the Scot straying two wheels onto the grass under braking and spinning into a heavy side-on impact with the barriers, which broke his VJM05's front wing and nose.
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Having had to stomach being overlooked for both a Mercedes and McLaren seat since his career-high finish two weeks in Singapore, the Scot also saw his team-mate and rumoured Ferrari target Nico Hulkenberg deliver another eye-catching performance to take fourth on the timesheet.
The German driver, thought to be first in line should Ferrari eventually decide to drop Felipe Massa, finished just over a tenth of a second ahead of his would-be team-mate Fernando Alonso, who himself will no doubt be concerned to finish day one here 0.6s off the pace.
Ferrari have brought several revisions to the F2012 for this weekend but already the World Championship leader may have to bank on Lotus and Mercedes' so far problematic weekends continuing if he is to prove McLaren and Red Bull's main challenger again.