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Red Bulls Lead in Friday Practice, Saturday Quali Washed Out

The only car to complete a lap during Saturday's qualifying sessions: the safety sar

Qualifying was washed out on Saturday in Suzuka.  Anyone who watched a live broadcast of the event might have been amused at a shot of a mechanic floating a makeshift model of the Queen Mary down the river that had formed in pit lane.  Surely the fans huddled in the grandstands would not have been much cheered by the sight.  They had paid good money to see their favorite drivers vie for pole, but what they saw instead was a competition for dry space and high ground in the paddock.

Suzuka has not been this wet since 2004, when qualifying was postponed until the morning of race day. The same schedule adjustment will occur this year.  If there’s a similar cloudburst tomorrow, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.  Formula 1 generally doesn’t stop for rain unless the water rises to hip boot level.  Such was the case today.  Even the safety car was hesitant about making reconnaissance laps.

As for Friday practice, there were few real surprises, if you set aside the fact that Lewis Hamilton crashed after only nine laps and sat out the rest of the session.  That said, his lap time was good enough to keep him in fifth position.  Hamilton has said that his collisions and subsequent DNFs in the previous two races wouldn’t inhibit him and make him overly cautious during the rest of the season, and judging from his performance in FP1, he’s good to his word.

Practice sessions are always a mixed bag.  Some teams might be going for quick laps on low fuel to prepare for qualifying, while others might be working on heavy or medium fuel setups for the race.  In FP1, the Red Bulls led the way, which really surprised no one.  While both Ferrari and McLaren have made performance gains recently, Red Bull still lead the field, irrespective of the fact that Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari took winner’s laurels at the last two venues.  Red Bull is still the team to beat.

The trend was repeated in FP2, with Vettel and Webber still running one-two, and Kubica chasing in third.  Perhaps the most unexpected performance of both of Friday’s sessions belonged to the Pole.  Renault had been making noises that they’d be able to up their game a bit for Suzuka, and the early indications are that they’ll be leading the best-of-the-rest category, i.e. the pack that follows Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren.

Michael Schumacher made a good showing, outpacing team mate Nico Rosberg in both of Friday’s sessions.  If I’m not mistaken, it’s the first time he’s been able to do that this year.  Whether or not he can carry that over to qualifying and the race remains to be seen.  The general trend has been that, no matter how well Schumi does on Friday, Rosberg is able to get the upper hand on Saturday and Sunday.  But Schumacher loves Suzuka.  He’s won there six times, and if he stands to do well anywhere, it’s at the storied Japanese venue.

Both Ferraris were midfield laggards during the first session, which was typical for the Scuderia.  They seem to prefer to work with heavy fuel loads in the first session, and then work on quicker laps in the afternoon.  In FP2, they lined up behind the Red Bulls and Kubica, with Button’s McLaren in seventh.  Lewis Hamilton was down in 13th, but he only managed eight laps, as his mechanics were busy during most of the session trying to repair the damage he’d done to his car in the first session.

If one can judge anything from practice, it looks as though the Ferraris will be on the heels of the Red Bulls, with the McLarens in pursuit.  The time gaps shown in practice might be significant, though.  Vettel, again flaunting his raw speed, was nearly 4/10ths quicker than his team mate Webber, and nearly 9/10ths quicker than Alonso.  If that’s any clue to race day speed, Alonso will have his work cut out for him.

Another intresting factor: Webber is currently leading the title chase, with Alonso lying second.  Would Red Bull be willing to employ the tactic that Ferrari used in Germany this year, and ask Vettel to move over for Webber, for the extra points?  Or, perhaps more importantly, would Vettel be willing to move over of asked?

Free Practice 1

Pos  Driver              Car                   Time       Gap       Laps
1.  Sebastian Vettel    Red Bull-Renault      1m32.585s            23
2.  Mark Webber         Red Bull-Renault      1m32.633s  + 0.048s  23
3.  Robert Kubica       Renault               1m33.129s  + 0.544s  23
4.  Adrian Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  1m33.639s  + 1.054s  13
5.  Lewis Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      1m33.643s  + 1.058s  9
6.  Rubens Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth     1m33.677s  + 1.092s  21
7.  Nico Hulkenberg     Williams-Cosworth     1m33.707s  + 1.122s  24
8.  Michael Schumacher  Mercedes              1m33.739s  + 1.154s  20
9.  Nick Heidfeld       Sauber-Ferrari        1m33.791s  + 1.206s  23
10.  Nico Rosberg        Mercedes              1m33.831s  + 1.246s  9
11.  Felipe Massa        Ferrari               1m33.929s  + 1.344s  25
12.  Jenson Button       McLaren-Mercedes      1m34.042s  + 1.457s  19
13.  Fernando Alonso     Ferrari               1m34.169s  + 1.584s  23
14.  Kamui Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari        1m34.271s  + 1.686s  19
15.  Vitaly Petrov       Renault               1m34.373s  + 1.788s  24
16.  Vitantonio Liuzzi   Force India-Mercedes  1m34.379s  + 1.794s  21
17.  Sebastien Buemi     Toro Rosso-Ferrari    1m34.991s  + 2.406s  26
18.  Jaime Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari    1m35.684s  + 3.099s  22
19.  Heikki Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth        1m36.949s  + 4.364s  25
20.  Timo Glock          Virgin-Cosworth       1m37.329s  + 4.744s  17
21.  Jarno Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth        1m37.388s  + 4.803s  23
22.  Jerome D’Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth       1m37.778s  + 5.193s  23
23.  Bruno Senna         Hispania-Cosworth     1m38.814s  + 6.229s  28
24.  Sakon Yamamoto      Hispania-Cosworth     1m39.443s  + 6.858s  26

Free Practice 2

Pos  Driver         Team                    Time              Laps
1.  Vettel         Red Bull-Renault        1:31.465            31
2.  Webber         Red Bull-Renault        1:31.860  + 0.395   29
3.  Kubica         Renault                 1:32.200  + 0.735   32
4.  Alonso         Ferrari                 1:32.362  + 0.897   34
5.  Massa          Ferrari                 1:32.519  + 1.054   35
6.  Button         McLaren-Mercedes        1:32.533  + 1.068   28
7.  Petrov         Renault                 1:32.703  + 1.238   32
8.  Schumacher     Mercedes                1:32.831  + 1.366   27
9.  Sutil          Force India-Mercedes    1:32.842  + 1.377   26
10.  Hulkenberg     Williams-Cosworth       1:32.851  + 1.386   26
11.  Rosberg        Mercedes                1:32.880  + 1.415   26
12.  Kobayashi      Sauber-Ferrari          1:33.471  + 2.006   31
13.  Hamilton       McLaren-Mercedes        1:33.481  + 2.016   8
14.  Barrichello    Williams-Cosworth       1:33.564  + 2.099   16
15.  Heidfeld       Sauber-Ferrari          1:33.697  + 2.232   33
16.  Buemi          Toro Rosso-Ferrari      1:34.005  + 2.540   32
17.  Alguersuari    Toro Rosso-Ferrari      1:34.055  + 2.590   37
18.  Liuzzi         Force India-Mercedes    1:34.310  + 2.845   33
19.  Kovalainen     Lotus-Cosworth          1:36.095  + 4.630   37
20.  Trulli         Lotus-Cosworth          1:36.333  + 4.868   33
21.  di Grassi      Virgin-Cosworth         1:36.630  + 5.165   28
22.  Glock          Virgin-Cosworth         1:36.834  + 5.369   28
23.  Senna          HRT-Cosworth            1:37.352  + 5.887   33
24.  Yamamoto       HRT-Cosworth            1:37.831  + 6.366   34

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