Greater Noida, India: Sebastian Vettel picked up where he left off on Friday by lapping fastest in free practice for an Indian Grand Prix that could bring the Formula One championship leader a fourth win in a row.
Red Bull’s 25-year-old German, who leads Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso by six points with four races remaining, was quickest in both of the day’s sessions.
Vettel, winner of last year’s inaugural race at the hot and hazy Buddh International Circuit south of New Delhi, set a best time of one minute 27.619 seconds in the morning and then led the afternoon timesheets with a lap of 1:26.221.
The latter time was comfortably inside his race lap record of 1:27.249.
McLaren’s Jenson Button was second fastest, 0.310 slower, before lunch with Vettel’s Australian team mate Mark Webber second in the afternoon in an ominous Red Bull one-two. Alonso was third in both sessions.
The top three in first practice were in the same order as last year’s podium finishers at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix, which Vettel dominated after having already clinched his second championship.
This time he has had to fight harder for a third crown although, with a run of three successive wins under his belt, he has a momentum that risks turning into another Red Bull runaway in the final races.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was fourth and sixth on the timesheets respectively but, in what could be a good omen for the race, was told by his team that he was “the fastest guy on high fuel”.
Kimi Raikkonen, third in the championship with Lotus, improved from 10th to fifth fastest on his first day on the track. Last year’s race was before he began his comeback after two seasons’ absence.
Alonso’s Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa had two spins in the afternoon, nudging an advertising board while trying to extricate himself from the runoff but otherwise without consequences. He complained of a “strange balance” in the car.
Mexican Esteban Gutierrez replaced compatriot Sergio Perez at Sauber for the first session, after the regular race driver was reported to be unwell, and was 20th. Perez returned for the afternoon.
Gutierrez is widely expected to replace Perez next season, with the older Mexican moving to McLaren to take over from Hamilton when he goes to Mercedes.
With the little-used track dusty at the outset, teams took their time to progress beyond installation laps in the morning and then focused on gathering data and testing updates before tyre work in the afternoon.
Ferrari, whose wind tunnel data has let them down this season, were trying out updated rear and front wings that they hope will help Alonso take the fight to Vettel.