Jenson Button lapped quickest in second practice for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, edging out a charging Nico Rosberg for Williams.
The Brawn GP driver traded fastest laps with team mate Rubens Barrichello throughout the session as the team, fresh from vindication from the FIA for running a double-decker diffuser, confirmed themselves as the ones to beat in Shanghai.
Button eventually came out on top with a 1:35.679, but a late flyer from Nico Rosberg saw the Williams split the Brawn drivers, a mere 0.025 seconds behind Button.
“The balance of the car really improved over the last couple of runs today after we had been struggling a little to find the right set-up early on,” said Button. “We completed a great deal of work with the two very different tyre compounds to establish what condition they would be in after longer runs.”
“There seemed to be a lot of traffic on track today so my main concern was finding some clear air. It was a useful first day of running but we still have some work to do tomorrow to be happy with the balance for qualifying.”
Red Bull Racing showed strong pace despite running a regular diffuser with Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel going fourth and fifth quickest behind Rubens Barrichello.
With the Chinese Grand Prix brought forward to the beginning of the season this year there are concerns that the teams could face another wet race on Sunday, but for Friday practice at least the weather remained dry and sunny in Shanghai.
Sebastian Vettel emerged as the early pace-setter for Red Bull Racing posting a benchmark time of of 1:36.160. He stayed at the top of the timesheets for most of the session ahead of teammate Mark Webber, who confirmed the pace of the RB5 – eventually pip ping the German for fourth.
But it wasn’t long before the Brawn GP team, with their newly declared legal double diffuser, vaulted to the top of the timesheets with Rubens Barrichello heading Jenson Button on a blistering 1:35.881.
The two Brawn drivers traded fastest times throughout the session with Button eventually getting the jump on his his Brazilian teammate using the softer tyres to good effect to go quickest on a 1:35.679.
“Our main focus was on the tyres and evaluating the best way of looking after the softer option tyre and it was very useful to find out what the tyres are capable of,” Barrichello revealed. We tried various things but I did struggle for grip with my last set of tyres this afternoon. There are a lot of marbles on the track at the moment but it should clean up going into the weekend.”
Williams and Toyota, the other two teams running a double-diffuser, also paced strongly throughout the session. Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock were sixth and seventh quickest, sandwiching Rosberg’s Williams teammate Kazuki Nakajima.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was unable to repeat the pace he showed in the morning warm up and wound up thirteenth – despite the team now running an interim split diffuser. Teammate Heikki Kovalainen improved in the late stages of the session to go ninth.
“The car instantly felt a bit better. I can definitely feel more stability and downforce from the front. We’ve definitely made a step forward for this race,” concluded Hamilton. “The car feels much stronger through the corners and I think we’ve got a very positive baseline for the rest of the weekend.
“My first run on the options felt quite consistent. “The drop-off definitely feels manageable. This was a good day, although we still need to work on MP4-24’s medium- and high-speed balance.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh added: “The team, both at the track and back in the factory, has done a fantastic job to get these bodywork upgrades to Shanghai and initial analysis would suggest that they have contributed to a slight uplift in our overall competitiveness.
“We are still working on MP4-24’s overall balance, but nonetheless concluded some productive tyre evaluation work. Heikki’s day was compromised by a hydraulic system problem which failed to adjust his front wing flaps correctly, a fault that distracted both him and his engineers from their regular programme.”
Red Bull Racing and McLaren aside, it was a difficult session for most of the regular diffuser teams with Ferrari, BMW Sauber, and Renault struggling with tyre graining as well as a general lack of pace.
The Ferrari pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, both running without KERS, wound up thirteenth and fourteenth quickest respectively, while the best BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica could manage was seventeenth, ahead of teamamte Nick Heidfeld. All four drivers appeared to struggle with tyre graining on the softer times.
Felipe Massa conceded that Ferrari’s championship campaign has been compromised by both the ruling in favour of split-diffusers and the loss of KERS – a decision the team made to improve reliability.
“I can say our fight for the championship is ever more compromised,” he said. Here we are also running without KERS and as a result, we are losing even more performance, in addition to not having as much aerodynamic downforce as the best cars. We must try and push as hard as possible on the development of the car, but we know it will be very hard to catch up. The only recipe for getting out of this difficulty is to work.
Kimi Raikkonen vowed to fight hard to bring Ferrari closer to the front: “The balance of the car isn’t bad and one doesn’t feel the lack of KERS. The point is that we are too slow compared to the teams currently at the top of the order. We must try and improve the car: at the moment, we are not able to fight for the title.”
“We must not give up the fight because, with the whole team working hard, we can get back into a winning position. It’s not an easy time, but our group is strong and we know what needs to be done to get out of this situation. The softer tyre seems to work better than it did in Australia.”
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali conceded that removing the KERS device from the cars did not yield a significant improvement in lap time.
“We will have to run a few races on the defensive and try and do the best we can,” he said. “Clearly, without KERS, we lose a bit of performance and initial indications are that we are not seeing any improvement in the balance of a car that, let’s not forget, was designed to carry this system. We are in a difficult situation and we must try and stay calm and work hard on all fronts.”
Renault’s Fernando Alonso languished in nineteenth place with teammate Nelson Piquet not fairing much better in sixteenth. The Enstone-based outfit are believed to have developed an interim double-decker diffuser, but are yet to run the device in Shanghai.
“Although we are at the bottom of the timesheets, I don’t think we should be too worried as we concentrated more on race configuration today,” said Alonso. “Tomorrow morning in the third free practice session we will be preparing for qualifying and so I think we can remain optimistic for the rest of the weekend.”
“We need to try to reach Q3, as we did in Malaysia, and aim to score as many points as possible. I think overall today we struggled to find the right set-up, but even looking at the times, we still have high hopes for this weekend.”
1 Jenson Button Brawn 1:35.679 2 Nico Rosberg Williams 0:00.025 3 Rubens Barrichello Brawn 0:00.202 4 Mark Webber Red Bull 0:00.426 5 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 0:00.488 6 Jarno Trulli Toyota 0:00.538 7 Kazuki Nakajima Williams 0:00.698 8 Timo Glock Toyota 0:00.869 9 Heikki Kovalainen McLaren 0:00.995 10 Sebastien Bourdais Toro Rosso 0:01.121 11 Adrian Sutil Force India 0:01.150 12 Felipe Massa Ferrari 0:01.168 13 Lewis Hamilton McLaren 0:01.262 14 Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen Ferrari 0:01.375 15 Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 0:01.540 16 Nelson Piquet Renault 0:01.594 17 Robert Kubica BMW 0:01.812 18 Nick Heidfeld BMW 0:01.865 19 Fernando Alonso Renault 0:01.959 20 Giancarlo Fisichella Force India 0:02.071