SHANGHAI // As the drizzling rain cleared, Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, capitalised on conditions to clock the fastest lap during the first practice day and prime himself perfectly ahead of qualifying today for the Chinese Grand Prix.
The German started third on the grid at the last race in Malaysia and knows his chances of a first front-row start since 2006 - a season that saw him win at the Shanghai International Circuit - have never been higher following the five-place grid penalty handed to Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes.
Hamilton, who was 0.172 seconds behind Schumacher yesterday, has started the first two races of the season on pole. In tomorrow's race, he will start from no higher than sixth after being forced to change his gearbox.
Schumacher described the first day of the season's third round as "trouble-free," before adding he was "quite happy with how our car is handling so far here; the balance was reasonably good and obviously a balanced car contributes a lot to lap time".
Hamilton was fastest earlier in the day, but with many teams managing limited laps because of rain, little could be read into it.
The 2008 world champion has yet to convert either of his poles this season, but sits second in the drivers' standings. He believes tomorrow rather than today will be key to him having a successful weekend in China, where he won last year.
"The longer runs look competitive and it's the race I'm focusing on," Hamilton said. "Hopefully, we can start as high up the grid as possible because I think we'll still be among the leading group. I love the challenge of coming through and gaining positions."
Red Bull Racing have struggled for pace this season, but seem to have made an improvement since the last race at Sepang. Sebastian Vettel, the world champion, was third fastest in the afternoon, closely followed by teammate Mark Webber.
While Webber said things are moving in the right direction, Vettel remained cautious.
"It is tight between the cars," he said. "If you look at the car, you can see a big difference compared to the set-up we used for Malaysia, but it's hard to say, as I don't have a comparison to this track.
"It's cooler here than at the last two races; I felt more comfortable, but we'll see."
Ferrari's qualifying woes look set to continue with Fernando Alonso, an unlikely winner in Malaysia, finishing 10th fastest and Felipe Massa placing 17th.
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