Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull evoked memories of their dominant 2011 campaign under the lights of the Marina Bay Circuit in Singapore last night, when the reigning world champion bounced back from his recent disappointment at Monza to head both free practice sessions on a circuit where his car's abundant downforce proved advantageous.
But, as has been the case all season, the lap times remained close. McLaren came here off the back of a hat-trick of wins, in Hungary, Belgium and Italy, and their strong form continued as Lewis Hamilton was only 0.049s adrift in the first session and Jenson Button was within 0.311s of Vettel in the second. Ferrari also showed the pace that Fernando Alonso had been expecting on one of three upcoming tracks that should play to the strengths of their once-troubled 2012 model.
Despite his speed, Vettel was cautious, another contrast to 2011. "Overall we can be happy with today, but let's see what we do tomorrow," he counselled. "It's still Friday and today's results are not so conclusive as some drivers [principally Hamilton] got stuck in traffic. Most important is that the car seemed to work on either of the tyre compounds, so we go from there."
"We're obviously in the top five," Hamilton said. "But it's going to be very close. Jenson and Fernando are very fast, and Sebastian's incredibly quick, so it's going to be tough."
But where Hamilton was happy with the development route his crew were pursuing, including long-run performance, Button felt that his car's balance was not as good as it could have been, even on the gripper supersoft Pirelli tyre, and thought that some set-up changes made in anticipation of optimising his car for the circuit might have taken him down a blind alley.
"The important thing is how the car feels, not the lap time at the moment," Button said. "And at the moment it's not feeling quite there. But hopefully we'll do that tonight."
Hamilton made it clear from the start of the weekend that he doesn't intend to comment further on all the speculation about his future, though negotiations continue behind the scene with both McLaren and Mercedes. And McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh was in defensive mode as he deflected suggestions that he could lose one of his star drivers for 2013.
Asked if he still regarded Hamilton switching camps as "fantasy," following a comment he made earlier in the season, Whitmarsh replied: "I don't remember quite saying that, but if you'd told me then that he'd signed a deal with Mercedes I'd have said that was fantasy, and I'd give the same response today.
"We are not giving thought to potential replacements, nor putting a brave face on anything. We are very focused on trying to do a good job here. It's a question of concentrating on winning this year's championship, and speculation about next year is not something we need to entertain or focus on.
"It might seem to outsiders that it's taking a long time to resolve contract negotiations because of all the speculation, but when you sit down and seriously put your mind to negotiations it doesn't take too long. It's a matter of priorities. I'm sure Lewis will want more money and we'll want to pay less, that's how business works. But there's no timescale. We might wait until after the season, you never know."
Which said a lot, and said nothing.
In his own little oasis, the championship leader Alonso said that some of Ferrari's new developments showed promise, while others were less positive. "It may just be that the latter need more development time," he admitted, before adding: "But overall today was positive."Reuse content