Although, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, practice is practice is practice, and one must be careful about drawing conclusions prematurely, I think it’s safe to say that one surprise that’s come from Friday’s opening practice sessions in Australia is the pace shown by McLaren.
Of course, McLaren has long had a reputation for sandbagging in pre-season testing, but in this case their troubled pace and reliability were genuine, and could be chalked up to a single cause: an aggressive exhaust and floor system. Taking advantage of the fact that the season opener in Bahrain had been dropped, the Woking team scrapped the problematic exhaust/flooring arrangement and replaced it with a more conservative solution. The result: they clawed beck downforce, and seem to have licked the reliability issue.
While the Red Bull boys assumed a familiar position at the head of the time sheets in the opeting practice session, it was the McLaren twins who were quickest in session two. In fact, they were the only drivers to get below the 1m26s mark. Martin Whitmarsh suggested recently that the late revisions of the McLaren would allow them to gain a second in pace, and although it’s impossible to know from early free practice the exact relative standings of the teams, it would certainly appear that McLaren is back in the mix.
McLaren pilot Lewis Hamilton has said that if McLaren hadn’t made the aforementioned changes to the car they’d be in the weeds right now, and I suspect that this wasn’t an exaggeration. Whether or not they’ll be pole contenders remains to be seen. Both Alonso and Vettel were less than 2/10ths off of Button’s pace, and most paddock prognosticators have agreed that the Red Bulls and the Ferraris will be the cars to beat this year, at least in the early part of the season. Moreover, the Red Bulls in particular seem to be able to pull extra pace from under their sleeves whenever they need it.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber, Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa rounded out the top seven slots in FP2, these being the only other cars to post times under the 1m26s marker. That Webber and Massa were adrift of their respective team mates came as no surprise. I think both the Aussie and the Brazilian will feel under pressure this year to prove that they’re not the de facto number two drivers for their respective teams.
Michael Schumacher outpaced team mate Nico Rosberg by a healthy gap, but Ross Brawn indicated that both Mercs suffered technical glitches during practice so it’s difficult to know exactly where they stand, either in relation to one another, or to the field as a whole. Nevertheless, Schumi indicated that he’s much more at home with the new Pirelli rubber being used this year, finding them much more “normal” in terms of responsiveness than was the case with the Bridgestones on offer in 2010. That bodes well for the second year of his comeback.
Free Practice 2
Free Practice 1