India's new jewel delights drivers

Hamilton hails new track but suffers grid penalty after setting fastest time in first practice session
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The Independent Online

Once the stray dog had been rounded up and escorted to a place of safety, shortly after the start of the first practice session yesterday morning, it all went very smoothly as Formula One arrived officially in India.

Click HERE to download graphic: New Delhi: The start of something big? (157.1kB)

Here at last was the real thing, and there were clear signs that it was not just the F1 fraternity that has fallen in love with the venue. The relationship between the fans and this new sport seems mutual.

No official figures were available, but the regular photographers who have covered F1 for years confirmed that there was a good crowd. "For sure there were a lot more than we'd see on a Friday in new venues such as Bahrain and China," said Steven Tee of LAT Photographic.

Felipe Massa led the chorus of praise, which was hardly surprising since he was fastest for the first time on a dry track since his accident in Hungary in 2009. "It's a very interesting track and there are corners where driving skill can make the difference," he said. "In some places the surface is very wide and so it will be possible to take various different lines in the race, which could make overtaking easier."

Massa's team-mate Fernando Alonso was not so struck with the Buddh International Circuit when his engine broke partway through the morning session, consigning him to a lonely vigil in front of the giant television screen upon which, when he turned round, he was able to observe a replay of his mechanical misfortune. But after losing valuable track time he cheered up later as he set the third-fastest time in the afternoon, close behind Massa and Red Bull's champion, Sebastian Vettel.

"First impressions are positive," the Spaniard said. "I like the track, even if it is very dirty and if you go just the slightest bit off line it's like driving on ice: this could create problems during overtaking moves on Sunday, but maybe by then the situation will have changed. It's very nice that the track is wide in some corners and I think it will add to the spectacle. Qualifying should be very exciting given the rather high average speed, especially through the final sector."

Lewis Hamilton's day ran the other way around. He was elated to set the fastest time by a healthy margin in the morning session, until the race stewards – among them former GP winner Johnny Herbert – pointed out that he had set it while marshals were still removing Pastor Maldonado's Williams from the place where it had rolled to a halt shortly before the end of the lap due to an engine failure. Since the yellow slow-down warning lights were still on, and flags being waved, they awarded him a three-place penalty for tomorrow's starting grid. He was not alone, as Sauber's Sergio Perez was similarly penalised.

Hamilton was fourth fastest in the afternoon as he set the pace initially before a transmission problem beset his car. His McLaren team-mate Jenson Button was sixth.

"The track is fantastic," Hamilton enthused. "It's very fast and flowing, the grip level is fantastic, the run-off areas seem to be good, and the kerbs are probably the best of any circuit we visit: nice rumble-strips that you can drive on. Like any brand-new circuit, it's been gripping up throughout the day.

"Sunday's race will be a long one. Nevertheless, there will be opportunities to overtake: it's a high-downforce circuit and, although it'll be very hard to follow other cars closely, the double DRS zone should make it a bit easier. We'll get a clearer idea tomorrow of just how quick we really are."

Williams's Adam Parr said the track played an important new role in F1's marketing strategy. "India is a spectacular, colourful and vibrant place and if we are to be a global sport it's important that we are here. The organisers have done a wonderful job to publicise the race and make us all feel so we come."

It is the openness of the Indians' enthusiasm that has been most attractive to F1 regulars used to indifference from the Chinese, and minimal understanding from spectators in Korea and Abu Dhabi. If the race is entertaining, this could be the start of something big.