SHANGHAI // The pollution hanging in the air around the colossal yet colourless Shanghai International Circuit yesterday had spectators holding their breath and struggling for visibility. Few, however, will have been surprised to see Sebastian Vettel continue his dominance as he aims to become the first driver in seven years to win the opening three races of a season.
Under a terminally dull sky, Red Bull Racing's German driver topped the time sheets in both practice sessions ahead of tomorrow's Chinese Grand Prix, where he hopes to emulate compatriot Michael Schumacher's 2004 achievement and complement his triumphs in Australia and Malaysia with a second Chinese title in three years.
Vettel's best time of the day was 0.2 seconds faster than Lewis Hamilton, whose teammate at McLaren-Mercedes, Jenson Button, was a further 0.1secs behind. Schumacher was fifth-fastest, behind Mercedes-GP teammate Nico Rosberg.
Mark Webber, Vettel's teammate at Red Bull, was second-fastest in the morning, before clocking only the 10th-quickest lap in the afternoon after a problem with his car's power-boosting Kers device. He hopes to have the issue sorted today. However, both McLaren drivers, having seen an updates package fail to improve the car's performance, appeared downcast and fearful ahead of today's qualifying session.
"My feeling is that they are very, very quick this weekend," Hamilton said of Red Bull, the reigning constructors' champions. "I'm not sure if they are using Kers or not, but you need downforce on this circuit and they have shown time and again that they have more than us. We'll still be chasing them."
Button, who was left frustrated by balance issues with his car and irritated by congestion issues on the track, said his team are no further forward in closing the gap on Red Bull. "I'll be surprised if we can really fight them for pole position in qualifying as they look very fast," he said. "We're still reasonably quick, it's just we didn't make any big steps forward. It's going to be really tough, but we'll give it our best go."
Schumacher has been disappointed with his team's performances so far this season, but said things were looking more positive after a change of approach to practice "paid off" yesterday.
Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, remained upbeat, despite his lowly 14th position. Ferrari, several of whose engineers flew back to Maranello from Malaysia before returning to Asia only yesterday, have struggled for pace so far this season. Poor qualifying sessions have resulted in the Spaniard being forced to fight through traffic to improve his points haul. He finished fourth in Melbourne and sixth in Sepang.
Alonso said rather than worrying about qualifying, though, his team is focused on improving race pace.
"When the car is good, the qualifying will be good and the race will be even better, so that is what we have to do," he said. "We have to find some time in the car, some improvements. That is the main priority for us - improve the car as quick as possible."