Massa sets standard before 'violent' crash interrupts Ferrari plan

The honours were evenly shared between Ferrari and McLaren yesterday after the first two practice sessions for a race that will be crucial to Lewis Hamilton's world championship campaign.

Ferrari's Felipe Massa had the fastest lap of the day, with 1m 19.575s set in the morning, but in the afternoon McLaren's fast Finn Heikki Kovalainen topped the timesheets with 1m 19.989s. Behind them, Hamilton focused on his scheduled programmes of car set-up and tyre compound evaluation, and was satisfied to finish third in both sessions.

Now 10 points adrift of the new series leader Massa following two non-points-scoring finishes, in Canada and France, and running in the megawatt glare of his countrymen's adulation, he knows that the lap times that really matter come in this afternoon's final qualifying session. Yesterday he was content to do the things he had to do to hone his McLaren MP4-23 for that moment, and was never far behind with respective laps of 1m 19.623s and 1m 20.543s.

"It was good to see so many fans at the circuit so early this morning!" Hamilton said. "Although we'd only tested here last week, the track felt quite different today. The car's balance felt very good despite my having a little grassy moment at Vale. Into the afternoon the car felt increasingly consistent, and I feel we've got a good benchmark for the weekend.

"I am approaching this as I approach every race. I am not coming here and expecting to blow everyone away. We have worked very hard and the test was really good last week. We come here with a strong feeling in the team and a strong package. We would love to get some good results, both me and Heikki. That would be a good starting point for the next 10 races."

Testing here last week certainly helped him in comparison to 2007, when he did not do that.

"Last year I came here and I had the car, but you don't have that much time on the Friday to get the right setting," he admitted. "I tried last year but the car was terrible the next day and I was very fortunate to get it round on my qualifying lap and put it on pole. But this year we are in a much stronger position having done the test. I know what I want from the car and having the test has given me the opportunity to get it into the right ballpark.

"Knowing this circuit you do the test and the track is one thing. Tomorrow will be slightly different but at least we have a better starting point."

While McLaren had a trouble-free day, there was drama for Ferrari moments after Massa set the fastest time in the morning. The Brazilian encountered oil on the track at Stowe corner after Fernando Alonso's Renault had broken its engine, and spun backwards into the barriers. The rear end of the red car sustained heavy damage, but it was rebuilt in time for the afternoon session. He had, however, lost valuable track time.

"It was a big crash," he reported, "but that's part of the game and I have had much worse accidents in my career. I didn't see any flags and I had approached the corner in the usual way and then I totally lost control of the car under braking. I tried to slow down, but the impact was still pretty violent. The most important thing is that we were able to fix the car and in the end we didn't lose that much time as it wasn't planned for me to do many laps in the morning.

"We came to Silverstone with a good starting point after the tests we did here last week and I think we are going in the right direction."

In a see-saw season in which consistency is critical, the incident did Massa no favours, especially as his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen completed his programme without incident.

The other drama centred on the Italian Jarno Trulli who also spun into the barrier at Stowe in the afternoon after his Toyota lost its rear wing under braking. "It's difficult to say what happened," he said. "I just lost the rear wing and went off. After that I was taken to the medical centre but I'm fine."

Honda's Jenson Button got himself in the top 10 ahead of his home race, while Massa was eighth despite having to wait until 40 minutes into the session while his car was rebuilt following the morning's shunt. Kazuki Nakajima was ninth, while Button's team-mate Rubens Barrichello sneaked into the top 10.

Thus far Hamilton, the reigning champion Raikkonen, Massa and BMW Sauber's Canadian Grand Prix winner Robert Kubica have all had their turns heading the points table, making the fight even tougher than last season's.

"It is a lot closer this year and it's great to see that there are a lot more teams competing for the title," Hamilton said. "It's great for the fans, it's great for us. It makes it tougher for everyone that is competing, but that's what it's all about."