BAR test driver Anthony Davidson put Ferrari's seven times world champion Michael Schumacher in the shade yesterday as Formula One made an historic debut in China.
The young Briton, who will not race tomorrow when a sell-out 160,000 strong crowd is expected for the first Grand Prix at the breathtaking US$325mil Shanghai circuit, set the pace in both practice sessions.
His best time of 1:33.289, clocked on an overcast afternoon in front of a towering but largely empty grandstand, was already comfortably faster than circuit designers' estimated lap time of 1:34.000.
But his reign as the fastest man yet around the circuit looks sure to end today.
“It's a good circuit and I got to grips with it quite quickly,” said the Briton, who had no need to conserve his car for the weekend ahead and could therefore run at higher engine speeds than others.
Germany's Ralf Schumacher, returning for Williams after a six-race absence following his big crash in the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis in June, was second quickest in the first session with a time of 1:35.455.
“Being back in the car I realised what I had really missed,” said Ralf, who joins Toyota at the end of the season. “Even if I have been out for three months, you never forget. It's like riding a bicycle.”
Briton Jenson Button, Davidson's BAR team mate, was second fastest in the afternoon in 1:34.174 but BAR's delight was diluted by a second session engine failure that will cost Japan's Takuma Sato 10 places on the starting grid.
McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, winner in Belgium last month, was third fastest.
Ferrari's Schumacher, who secured his seventh world championship in Spa, was only 15th on the timesheets in the morning after stopping at the end of the pit exit with three minutes remaining.
“We had a software issue,” he said.
“It is a very challenging circuit and we still have to adapt our car to the demands of the track and it is not yet perfect,” added the champion. “But I am confident we can have a good weekend.”
The German phenomenon, winner of 12 of the season's 15 races to date, was eighth best in the afternoon but still more than a second off the pace.
“We have not yet found a very good balance for the cars and we have a bit too much understeer,” said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. “So we have some work to do overnight.
“The track is changing quite a lot at the moment, which does not help as it means we are trying to hit a moving target.”
Despite its evident newness, drivers praised the circuit and expected good overtaking opportunities on a challenging layout unlike any other in the championship.
Schumacher's Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello, winner of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza 12 days ago, was fifth quickest overall.
Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, making his Formula One comeback with Renault after a year's absence, made a steady start to his return and was 15th fastest in the second session after a late off-track excursion. – Reuters
SECOND FREE PRACTICE TIME
1. Anthony Davidson (Gbr) BAR-Honda 1:33.289, 2. Jenson Button (Gbr) BAR-Honda 1:34.174, 3. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:34.289, 4. David Coulthard (Gbr) McLaren-Mercedes 1:34.362, 5. Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:34.448, 6. Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) Sauber-Petronas 1:34.680, 7. Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:34.714, 8. Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:34.776, 9. Ricardo Zonta (Bra) Toyota 1:34.868, 10. Olivier Panis (Fra) Toyota 1:34.870;
11. Ryan Briscoe (Aus) Toyota 1:34.881, 12. Felipe Massa (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:34.959, 13. Fernando Alonso (Spa) Renault 1:35.514, 14. Juan Pablo Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:35.646, 15. Jacques Villeneuve (Can) Renault 1:35.851, 16. Mark Webber (Aus) Jaguar-Cosworth 1:35.886, 17. Bjorn Wirdheim (Swe) Jaguar-Cosworth 1:36.363, 18. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan 1:36.630, 19. Zsolt Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi 1:37.076, 20. Christian Klien (Aut) Jaguar-Cosworth 1:37.111
21. Gianmaria Bruni (Ita) Minardi 1:37.431, 22. Timo Glock (Ger) Jordan 1:37.728, 23. Bas Leinders (Bel) Minardi 1:38.522, 24. Robert Michael Doornbos (Ned) Jordan 1:39.051, 25. Takuma Sato (Jpn) BAR-Honda did not complete a lap.