MANAMA, Bahrain, April 20 – World championship leader Lewis Hamilton topped the times for McLaren in Friday morning’s opening free practice session for this weekend’s controversial Bahrain Grand Prix.
The 27-year-old Englishman clocked a best time of 1min 33.572secs to dominate the session ahead of his nearest rival, defending champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull.
The session was run in warm and dry conditions under a perfect blue sky at the Sakhir circuit in the desert landscape half an hour’s drive from capital city Manama.
More importantly, for the Formula One paddock regulars, there were no further reported overnight incidents following the explosion of a firebomb close to a car carrying four members of the Force India team on Wednesday evening.
F1 chief executive and commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone was sighted in the paddock, making a deliberate visit to the Force India team whose young British driver Paul Di Resta was third fastest in the session.
German Nico Rosberg, who won last weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai, was fourth-quickest for the much-improved Mercedes team ahead of Hamilton’s McLaren team-mate and fellow Briton Jenson Button.
Di Resta’s Force India team-mate Nico Hulkenberg was sixth ahead of Germany’s seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, 43, in the second Mercedes. Australian Mark Webber in the second Red Bull was eighth.
The Force India team spent the morning as the only team running on the soft compound tyres, a signal, many observers suggested, that they were unlikely to run through the second session in the afternoon because they intended to leave the circuit and return to their hotel before dark.
The shock of the firebomb incident on the motorway, when protesters clashed with police and brought the traffic to a halt on Wednesday evening, had upset many of the team.
Both of the Force India drivers were stoical about events around them.
Hulkenberg said: “We shouldn’t have been put in this position,” while Di Resta admitted it was an “uncomfortable situation”.
Button said it was a “difficult question to answer” before adding “you’re here interviewing me as a driver and that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about – motor racing. The outside issues I’m not going to talk about because it’s not what I’m here to do.”
A general air of disgruntlement pervaded the paddock which welcomed a rare visit also from former Ferrari star Gerhard Berger, former McLaren team manager Jo Ramirez and Williams team founder Sir Frank Williams.
Meanwhile, The Force India team confirmed Friday it is considering pulling out of the second practice for the controversial Bahrain Grand Prix on safety grounds.
The Silverstone-based team was upset on Wednesday evening when four mechanics, in a car returning to their hotel from the circuit, were caught up in violent incidents involving protesters and the police.
A petrol bomb exploded close to their vehicle and they had to evade tear gas.
As a result, one member of the Force India team, who was not in the car, and a contractor working for the team decided to leave the Grand Prix and fly home.
Deputy team principal Bob Fearnley confirmed that Force India were discussing their position and were considering curtailing their practice work in order to return to their hotel before dark.
Fearnley told Autosport that the team might leave early on Friday, but would not miss qualifying on Saturday afternoon or the race on Sunday.
“I have a few things to sort out,” he explained.
Force India were the only team to run on the soft-option tyres during Friday morning’s opening free practice session, finishing up third and sixth fastest with Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg respectively.