After its troubled weekend in Japan, McLaren was delighted to see Lewis Hamilton claim top spot in opening practice for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix and, even though the Briton slipped to third on the combined times, expressed satisfaction with the performance of its latest development parts.
Although Friday times rarely define the rest of a grand prix weekend, Hamilton and team-mate Jenson Button were to the fore in both 90-minute sessions as work on the parts left unevaluated by the rain in Japan appeared to have paid off.
“Today was an encouraging first day for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes," team principal Martin Whitmarsh confirmed, "First impressions suggest our new upgrades are working, and that we seem to have the performance to match the other world championship frontrunners, which bodes well for an extremely exciting qualifying session tomorrow.
“Following some extremely in-depth preparatory work undertaken back at the McLaren Technology Centre, both Jenson and Lewis were able to very rapidly get to grips with the new track configuration – something that enabled us to focus even more keenly on set-up development, and we’ll be deploying our new rear wing for the remainder of the weekend.”
Hamilton sat out much of the opening session before taking to a rubbered-in Yeongam circuit and shooting straight to the top of the times. As the track continued to pick up pace, his initial 1min 40.887secs benchmark was obliterated during the afternoon session, where the Briton wound up third fastest overall behind title rivals Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.
“This morning, the track was extremely dusty, so all the drivers were sliding around quite a lot, but the track evolution throughout the day has been quite dramatic, so the track is looking quite good now, even if there’s still plenty of dust off-line," the 2008 world champion reported, “We look to be quick along the straights, and we seem to be competitive in the second and third sectors too, which is encouraging. The track is very fast – and you need a good car around here, which I feel we’ve got."
Despite his optimism, however, Hamilton was quick to recognise that the circuit could bring more than just the title-chasing teams into play, with Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg both in the mix during the day.
“Today was spent evaluating some new developments we’d brought to this track, and the times suggest we look as competitive as the Red Bulls, but the Renaults and Ferraris also look quick, so qualifying might come down to which driver can pull the most time out of his quick lap,” he reasoned.
Team-mate Button also took his turn at the top of the timesheets, holding down P1 in the midst of both sessions, but had his afternoon programme interrupted by a minor fire at the rear of his MP4-25 that required the urgent attention of extinguisher-wielding McLaren mechanics.
“I lost a little bit of time in the afternoon session, which was disappointing because I didn’t get to run with high fuel," he sighed, "The car just overheated - I jumped out in the pit-lane because it started smoking and we lost a bit of time tidying it up. Apart from that, it’s been a pretty good day."
Despite being the title outsider, sitting 31 points off the pace, Button was happy to have recorded the fifth best time in both sessions on a track layout he appears to adapted to quickly.
“Our car has been performing pretty well here and I’ve been enjoying the circuit – it’s fun and flowing," he noted, "While the track was pretty tricky, initially because it was quite slippery, I felt like we got to grips with it quite quickly. There’s just a lot of dust, that’s the only problem."
Although many were predicting Yeongam to be a Red Bull circuit, and despite Webber topping the combined times, Button remained optimistic that he and Hamilton could be competitive.
"We’re very strong in the first sector, which I guess people expected, but we’re also pretty strong in the other sectors, which is encouraging for us," he noted, "I’m really looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”