Is Kimi sand-bagging?

With the off-track drama surrounding Silverstone’s loss of the British Grand Prix (see HERE), David Coulthard’s retirement (HERE) and the flood of rumours about next years driver line-up that followed (HERE), not to mention Max Mosley’s shake-up of the regulations for 2011 (HERE), Friday’s track action took something of a backseat on this the eve of the penultimate British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Kimi Raikkonen Silverstone

At the sharp-end of the pack McLaren appear to have significantly closed the gap to Ferrari paving the way for a colossal scrap between Lewis, Heikki, Felipe and Kimi in qualifying, all four of which have shown in previous run-offs that they are capable of snatching the top spot.

Despite being a home grand prix for McLaren, Silverstone has traditionally favoured their Italian rivals with Kimi Raikkonen dominating the race last year. Lewis Hamilton delighted the crowd on Saturday by running slightly lighter to clinch pole, but it proved to be his undoing in the race with both Raikkonen and then team-mate Alonso getting the jump at the pit-stops.

In Friday practice this time around though there was nothing to choose between F1’s powerhouses or at least that is how it looked on paper. Heikki Kovalainen was a scant one hundredth of a second slower than Massa in the morning warm up and went quickest of all in the afternoon.

“We seemed to find a nice balance almost immediately and waited for the track to come to us throughout both sessions,” said the Finn afterwards. “The trick here is to balance the set-up between the high- and slow-speed corners and I feel that we’re getting closer to achieving that. We shouldn’t get carried away with being fastest on Friday afternoon, but we’ve got a good basis for Sunday.”

Lewis was never far behind his team-mate but an off-track excursion at the Luffield complex on his final flying lap of the day showed he has yet to hit the sweet spot.

“Although we’d only tested here last week, the track felt quite different today,” explain the 23-year-old. “The car’s balance felt very good despite my having a little grassy moment at Turn Eight. Into the afternoon, the car felt increasingly consistent, and I feel we’ve got a good benchmark for the weekend ahead.”

Ferrari had a difficult day of running despite Massa setting the pace in the morning warm up. Moments after sealing P1 the Brazilian careered rear-end-first into the tyre wall at Stowe the same corner that Michael Schumacher broke his legs at in 1999 after losing the back end of his Ferrari on a trail of oil left by Fernando Alonso, whose Renault engine let go mid way in the session.

“It was a big crash, but that’s part of the game and I have had much worse accidents in my career,” Massa said shrugging off the impact. 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.”

Ferrari managed to repair Massa’s stricken F2008 and the 27-year-old went on to lap eighth quickest in the afternoon session with team-mate Raikkonen in twelfth a result which suggested that the Scuderia were by no means running on all four cylinders.

Massa’s problems in practice two did seem genuine however; he made several excursions onto the English grass during his flying laps and was struggling with the balance of car, which only a few hours earlier was buried in the tyre walls minus its rear bodywork. He says he his happy though: “I am pleased with the balance of the car and its performance on both types of tyre we have here from Bridgestone,” he said.

Raikkonen’s apparent lack of pace is less explainable; expect the Finn to be a serious threat to Lewis Hamilton’s hopes of pole position tomorrow. The Ferrari driver was carrying an extra two laps of fuel last year and only just missed out on pole, his weight penalty an even bigger disadvantage at Silverstone where fuel consumption is higher. That is the extent of the Iceman’s speed around the Northants airfield. And at the last outing in France, he had pulled out a significant advantage over team-mate Massa before his exhaust problem intervened, underling the advantage he has in these high-speed arenas. You would never guess it though:

“In the afternoon I had a bit of a struggle to find the best settings on the car, which was not working as well as it had done at last week’s test,” said the 28-year-old. “We have to look at the data to understand why. Obviously, the order in the second session is not representative of the relative strengths in the field. But I am still reasonably confident and if we manage to find a good set-up, then we can fight for the top places.”

Behind the big two as it now is given that BMW Sauber seem to have taken a step back in performance it was Red Bull Racing, Williams and, somewhat unexpectedly Honda, who emerged as the closest challengers, with Sebastian Vettel throwing his Toro Rosso into the mix for good measure.

We have seen it before of course with these very teams falling back in qualifying while the likes of BMW Sauber, Renault and Toyota tend come to the fore. That said, Red Bull appear to be a genuine threat this weekend. Mark Webber has traditionally gone well at Silverstone and David Coulthard will be giving it absolutely everything on this is last showing in front of his British supporters.

Toyota were the big losers on Friday with Timo Glock crawling to a halt on the back straight with a clutch problem and Jarno Trulli falling victim to a carbon-copy of Felipe Massa’s crash in the morning. The Italian was pitched into the tyre barriers at Stowe after his rear wing appeared to drop off his TF108 just before the braking zone.

“Things clearly haven’t gone well for us today,” mulled Trulli. “It’s difficult to say what happened, I just lost the rear wing and went off. After that I was taken to the medical centre for a routine check but I am fine and cleared to return to the cockpit tomorrow.”

“This means we have a busy weekend’s work ahead but we will push to make up ground. After our recent results the team is really fired up. We can still try to get both cars into the top ten and then aim for points.”

Given their impressive pace in France and the three day test at Silverstone last week, it would not be a shock to see Trulli hustle his Toyota up onto the first three rows of the grid however.