Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren all came away feeling optimistic after the first two practice sessions at the new Korean International Circuit yesterday indicated that tomorrow's inaugural Korean Grand Prix is going to be a hard fought battle between the top five contenders for the world championship.
Lewis Hamilton made the most of a plethora of new rear wings to take his McLaren round fastest in the first session on a desperately dusty and slippery track. Hamilton also set the pace towards the end of the afternoon session, before Ferrari's Fernando Alonso edged him out and then Red Bull's Mark Webber came in beneath both of them to set the fastest lap of the day in 1min 37.942sec. With a margin of superiority of only 0.190sec, however, Red Bull cannot afford to feel complacent, especially as Webber set his time with the rear anti-roll bar disconnected due to handling problems.
"The track changed a lot today," Webber said. "It started to get more sensible as the day went on, but it's the same for everyone and we just have to keep chipping away, doing what we can with our programme and working with the car.
"It was a positive day," added the leader in the drivers' championship, "and there was a lot of information to gather and we've done that pretty successfully. We're optimistic with today's performance."
Hamilton took heart from McLaren's performance as he finished just 0.337sec slower than Webber. "We look to be quick along the straights, and we seem to be competitive in the second and third sectors, too, which is encouraging," Hamilton said. "The track is very fast, and you need a good car around here, which I feel we've got.
"The times suggest we look as competitive as the Red Bulls, but the Renaults and Ferraris also look quick, so qualifying might come down to which driver can pull the most time out of his quick lap.
"We've a few more new bits on the car than were in Japan," Hamilton added. "We didn't have all the bits together then to be able to put them on, so we finally got them on and today spent a lot of time trying to get as much running and feedback on those components."
Jenson Button was fifth fastest for McLaren, behind Robert Kubica in his Renault and ahead of Ferrari's Felipe Massa, but Sebastian Vettel struggled with a puncture in the other Red Bull. "I think we got a crash course in sliding around and drifting today, it was good fun," Vettel said.
Webber echoed the sentiments of many drivers when he praised the efforts of the Koreans. "It's enjoyable to drive here, there are a couple of unique sections and it's always a challenge for a driver to get into a new venue. They've done a remarkable job and I'm clutching at straws to criticise anything."
Five drivers still in the fight: The contenders give their verdict on the race for the championship
Mark Webber (Red Bull) 220 points
"We have three races to go and they all offer the same points as the first three races of the year and the ones in the middle, so nothing has really changed too much. You've just got to go out and do your best. It is a clean slate for everybody. If there's a point, in the future, where we have to race each other again then Seb [Vettel] and I will do what we always do and that's try to get the best result out of whatever situation we have. Irrespective if I'm racing Fernando or JB or Lewis or Seb, I need to finish races. Clearly it's been my best season to date, so I'm happy – so far."
Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 206 pts
"It's probably been the best year of my career so far. What a great experience, I'm very happy. Now the last three races we will try to do our best to arrive in a position to fight for the championship in Abu Dhabi. We came back. We made some good steps forward in the last five, six grands prix, so the last three races should be exciting with some better circuits, some worse circuits for all of us. We just need to make the most of every weekend."
Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 206 pts
"I think things have not looked too good for me at times this year, so to be in a good position now is great. The car is really good. The last couple of races were very strong. As the others said this race is a bit unknown yet. I think all of us could be very strong potentially here, so we need to see how it goes. Sector one doesn't look like our favourite part of the track, but I think sector two and sector three should give us a possibility to catch up with the rest. We will see. It is an interesting venue this one, so we're looking forward to it."
Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 192 pts
"I think it's possible [to win the championship]. Anything's possible. And I think you can tell that we, as a team, and the Ferraris as well, are pushing very hard because I don't think the gap is that big. So it's not impossible. We've outqualified them [the Red Bulls] ... what was it, one race maybe? So they've had more than a few pole positions but no, I think we can close the gap, hopefully. I never have any expectations. I'm happy where I am, we're still in the fight for the championship, so it's not a bad position to be in."
Jenson Button (McLaren) 189 pts
"Obviously it's most difficult for me as I am 31 points behind Webber in the lead. But there is always a possibility to close that gap and win the title. We are still very hopeful and I am looking forward to the next three races. I am sure it is going to be pretty mixed up as we go through all of them. If you look at the last two races, the Ferraris and Red Bulls sort of had the legs on us a little bit but these next three – hopefully we will be a bit closer with our new aero package. That will make an exciting fight for the end of the season."
FIA Formula one Korean Grand Prix, Yeongam, South Korea: First practice times:
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:40.887; 2 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:40.968; 3 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:41.152; 4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:41.371; 5 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:41.940; 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:42.022; 7 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:42.202; 8 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:42.293; 9 N Huelkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:42.678; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:42.883; 11 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:42.896; 12 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:43.054; 13 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 1:43.309; 14 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:43.602; 15 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:43.928; 16 S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso 1:43.940; 17 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:44.887; 18 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso 1:45.141; 19 T Glock (Ger) Virgin 1:45.588; 20 J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin 1:46.613; 21 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus 1:47.115; 22 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT 1:50.347; 23 B Senna (Br) HRT 1:50.821; 24 J Trulli (It) Lotus 1:51.701.
1 Webber 1:37.942; 2 Alonso 1:38.132; 3 Hamilton 1:38.279; 4 Kubica 1:38.718; 5 Button 1:38.726; 6 Massa 1:38.820; 7 Vettel 1:39.204; 8 Petrov 1:39.267; 9 Rosberg 1:39.268; 10 Kobayashi 1:39.564; 11 Heidfeld 1:39.588; 12 Schumacher 1:39.598; 13 Barrichello 1:39.812; 14 Liuzzi 1:39.881; 15 Sutil 1:39.971; 16 Huelkenberg 1:40.478; 17 Alguersuari 1:40.578; 18 Buemi 1:40.896; 19 Kovalainen 1:42.773; 20 Trulli 1:42.801; 21 Glock 1:43.115; 22 L Di Grassi (Br) Virgin 1:44.039; 23 Yamamoto 1:45.166; 24 Senna 1:46.649.