The first practice day of the 2009 F1 season was the same old story for the British drivers – one near the top of the timesheets, one stranded at the bottom driving a milk float, and a near miss for David Coulthard.
Unlike the last couple of years, however, it wasn’t McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton mixing it with the fastest cars while Jenson Button trailed far behind. The form shown in pre-season testing continued, with the Woking team struggling and the re-born Brawn outfit among the leaders.
David Coulthard, meanwhile, is on standby to drive this weekend if needed – although he retired at the end of last season he has been pressed into service as the back-up driver for Red Bull and Toro Rosso after the teams were unable to secure a superlicence for their first choice, promising young New Zealander Brendon Hartley.
Realistically the Scot will not be racing this weekend – but he is nevertheless one sharp kick to Mark Webber’s probably-healed broken leg away from making the most unlikely of comebacks.
Webber, who has had a run of bad luck at his home Grand Prix since scoring points for Minardi on his debut, served notice that he intends to put that right this weekend. By setting the fourth-fastest time he made himself the only driver in a ‘normal’ car to get among those using the controversial rear diffuser.
Whether Brawn, Toyota and Williams will be allowed to cash in early-season successes for points at the end of the season depends on the result of other teams’ appeal against the stewards’ decision to permit the hotly-disputed bodywork in the Australian race.
Whatever happens in the end, its effectiveness was demonstrated again across the two Friday practice sessions. Nico Rosberg was fastest for Williams, with Kazuki Nakajima seventh. Brawn GP’s Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button were second and fifth. And Toyota’s Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock locked up third and sixth places.
By contrast, the teams running the new power-boosting KERS system fared less well – in the faster second session of practice Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen were 18th and 17th for McLaren, while the BMW pair of Nick Heidfeld (with KERS) and Robert Kubica (without) were 14th and 15th. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen were 10th and 11th – behind Sebastien Vettel for Red Bull and Adrian Sutil for Force India.
Both Raikkonen and Kovalainen placed higher in the aggregate times for the two sessions, the McLaren driver being one slot better in 16th and his Ferrari rival in ninth.
All the usual warnings apply about practice pace not being a reliable indicator of race pace – but there can be no doubt that McLaren aren’t where they want to be, and the teams that invested in cleverly designed rear-ends rather than expensive electrical devices are sitting pretty.
Hamilton is reported to have said the car is bottoming out so badly that he can only just see his braking points, while Brawn are hotly tipped to announce a major sponsorship deal with Richard Branson’s Virgin group. Coulthard, meanwhile, will be reporting for the BBC.
Unless some mystery square-jawed stranger looms out of the dark tonight when Webber is least expecting it…