McLaren head Ferrari as track conditions improve
At last, the first official practice session of the season got underway under grey Melbourne skies here at Albert Park on Friday, with BMWs Sebastian Vettel heading out Toyotas Jarno Trulli and Spykers Adrian Sutil promptly at 10am.
Conditions were fearsomely greasy initially as a light drizzle persisted, with Sutil besting Vettel in an inter-German fight. As things dried a little, Fernando Alonso for McLaren and then Jenson Button in the earthy Honda vied for fastest time with respective laps of 1m 42.878s and 1m 42.769s.
The next spell saw the Ferraris set the pace, Kimi Raikkonen lapping his in 1m 39.242s and Felipe Massa coming out to do 1m 39.277s after sitting out all of the session up to that point. Strong overtones of Schumacher there!
For these new hour and a half long practice sessions teams must nominate which drivers will run. In this first one everyone ran in team order except for Vettel standing in for Robert Kubica, and Kazuki Nakajima for Nico Rosberg at Williams.
There were plenty of minor incidents; Rubens Barrichello, Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen, Button and Alonso all had minor off-track adventures, and one of the BMWs decimated a pigeon that unwisely stayed on the line a moment too long.
The times all fell further as conditions continued to improve, a fact signalled when Nick Heidfeld pushed his BMW to the fore with a lap of 1m 37.249s shortly after the hour. Before long Alonso was back out, pushing his McLaren to second place ahead of team mate Lewis Hamilton (1m 37.610s and 1, 37.962s), but with seven minutes left Red Bull timed it well to put Mark Webber on dry tyres, and he slashed down to 1m 32.194s to go fastest. No prizes for guessing the crowds reaction!
The local hero subsequently improved to 1m 31.661s before a minor off in Turn One, narrowly holding off Button who did 1m 31.976s before being supplanted by team-mate Barrichellos 1m 31.737s. But quicker than you could write that Button went quickest in 1m 31.162s from Nakajimas 1m 31.401s, and then Vettel beat them with 1m 30.857s.
Conditions were improving so fast that those who made dry-tyre runs went so much quicker than those who only shortly before been setting the pace on wets. In the final minutes Alonso stamped his authority by taking fastest time away from Massa, 1m 29.214s to 1m 30.707s. And to please McLaren further, Hamiltons super-clean first session yielded 1m 30.878s for a close fourth behind Vettel.
Behind them Buttons 1m 31.162s held up for fifth ahead of the impressive Nakajima (1m 31.401s), Coulthard (1m 31.528s), Kovalainen (1m 31.571s), Webber (1m 31.661s), Barrichello (1m 31.737s) and Takuma Sato (1m 31.782s).
Left behind in all this were Giancarlo Fisichella (1m 32.011s), Wurz (1m 32.194s), Sutil (1m 34.043s), Liuzzi (1m 34.627s), Albers (1m 35.055s), Heidfeld (1m 37.249s), Davidson (1m 39.221s), Raikkonen (no dry-tyre run and 1m 39.242s), Schumacher (1m 39.550s), and then Speed and Trulli (1m 41.763s and 1m 44.130s), each having mechanical problems.
What does it all mean? Its hardly worth trying to assess just yet, as the track will be drier still this afternoon. But for the first proper run of the year, it was great fun to watch.