Hamilton and Button close gap on Red Bull to put pole in balance

Sebastian Vettel did what everyone expected of him in Shanghai yesterday as he dominated the first two practice sessions.

But where his margin was two seconds over McLaren in the morning it was less than two-tenths of a second in the afternoon, suggesting that the fight for pole position this afternoon could be entertaining.

Under pollution-laden skies that made Santa Monica on a bad day seem as clear as the Arctic Circle, the drivers began reacclimatising to the 5.4km track that is shaped like the Chinese character "shang", meaning "high" or "above", and to the Pirelli tyres which soon littered it with slippery marbles of discarded rubber off the racing line.

Vettel lapped in 1min 37.688sec, despite at one time sliding off the road. Meanwhile, after a similar moment early in the day and a little rant at his mechanics about brake performance, Lewis Hamilton got the hammer down to chase the Red Bulls in the morning and, after Mark Webber had some difficulties in the afternoon, to hound Vettel. Hamilton was only 0.166sec adrift in the end. "It's been a busy day," he reported. "The car wasn't too bad at the end of this afternoon's session – and I was able to get a decent lap time despite not feeling totally comfortable with it. We've been struggling a little bit with the set-up. It doesn't feel like the car's performing in all the areas we expected: we need to see whether the issue with the car's balance is down to the upgrade or an unsatisfactory set-up."

Jenson Button's time was only 0.247sec away from Vettel's and he believes he has a good chance this weekend. "This morning was reasonably good and the car was working well. It's a good car to drive," he said. "For the afternoon, we tried a few things and didn't really improve the balance of the car, so we're going to look at why the changes didn't really give us the improvement we expected

"It's not as hot as it was in Malaysia, so I don't think the tyres will be as much of an issue to look after as they were there. If we sort out the balance tomorrow, we'll be closer to Red Bull."

Following yet more questions about his loyalty to McLaren and a possible switch to Red Bull next year, Hamilton reiterated his commitment to the Woking team. "There is no question of my loyalty for my team. It's been my team since I was six years old. I'm committed to them. I want to try and help them as well as becoming one of the most successful drivers myself. I want them to be out there to do that for me."

Asked about a comment he'd made to the effect that, while he has always enjoyed racing for McLaren and would like to continue, he would have to re-evaluate things at the end of the year, he responded: "I think that's just a saying. That's the way of life."

Meanwhile Renault's Nick Heidfeld, third in Malaysia, crunched his car into the tyre barriers in both sessions – wrecking the only version of his team's new front wing in the process.

First and Second Practice Times

Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China: First Practice: 1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1min 38.739sec, 2 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:39.354, 3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:40.845, 4 J Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:40.940, 5 N Heidfeld (Ger) Renault 1:40.987, 6 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:41.046, 7 S Perez (Mex) Sauber 1:41.189, 8 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Cosworth 1:41.222, 9 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:41.231, 10 S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:41.328, 11 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:41.361, 12 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:41.434, 13 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 1:41.494, 14 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus-Renault 1:41.579, 15 P Di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes 1:41.610, 16 D Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:41.752, 17 R Barrichello (Br) Williams-Cosworth 1:41.939, 18 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:42.301, 19 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 1:43.792, 20 J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin-Cosworth 1:44.089, 21 V Liuzzi (It) Hispania-Cosworth 1:44.359, 22 T Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth 1:44.438, 23 L Razia (Br) Lotus-Renault 1:44.542, 24 N Karthikeyan (India) Hispania-Cosworth 1:45.019.

Second Practice: 1 S Vettel 1min 37.688sec, 2 L Hamilton 1:37.854, 3 J Button 1:37.935, 4 N Rosberg 1:37.943, 5 M Schumacher 1:38.105, 6 F Massa 1:38.507, 7 A Sutil 1:38.735, 8 N Heidfeld 1:38.805, 9 V Petrov 1:38.859, 10 M Webber 1:39.327, 11 K Kobayashi 1:39.538, 12 P Maldonado 1:39.667, 13 S Buemi 1:39.771, 14 F Alonso 1:39.779, 15 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:39.828, 16 R Barrichello 1:39.925, 17 S Perez 1:39.953, 18 H Kovalainen 1:40.476, 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus-Renault 1:41.482, 20 N Karthikeyan 1:42.902, 21 V Liuzzi 1:43.850, 22 T Glock 1:44.747, 22 J d'Ambrosio 1:44.008, 24 P Di Resta no time.