GREATER NOIDA, INDIA // Mahatma Gandhi once proclaimed "an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of preaching". The Indian luminary was likely no fan of motorsport, but his words held a certain significance at the Buddh International Circuit yesterday.
After two weeks of conversing and calculating, posturing and posing, the time arrived for Red Bull Racing and Ferrari to get this final championship challenge under way.
Four races in five weeks will decide the final destination of this season's title and, in stark contrast to India's inaugural race last year, the two racing marques have arrived in the subcontinent with everything still achievable.
Sebastian Vettel, triumphant here last season, is undoubtedly once again the man to catch; three consecutive wins in East Asia have taken Red Bull's German six points clear at the top of the standings. Behind him sits Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard worthy of the sobriquet Senor Consistente after placing his Ferrari in the points at every race he has completed this season.
The impressive Indian circuit, testament to the sport's self-indulgence, is built on the outskirts of Delhi, surrounded by factories and unfinished high-rise buildings. Yesterday, when the first of two practice sessions came calling, the track proved dusty, while low-lying smog added a further challenge.
Yet Vettel proved to be at his industrial best to brave the conditions and come out on top. And in the afternoon, with the morning traffic having swept the track clean, he consolidated his supremacy with an equally successful second session.
"Fridays are always difficult with so many things changing," said Vettel, the reigning world champion. "The track improvement was quite big. It was dusty to start and improved lap by lap, so I wouldn't be surprised if [today] the order is different. We've had worse Fridays, so I am happy."
Mark Webber finished second in the afternoon, little more than a 10th of a second behind his Red Bull teammate and the only other man ahead of Alonso.
Such a result indicates not only that the Austrian marque's dominance safely negotiated India's infamously strict customs department, but also that Vettel's enemy may lie within this weekend as, despite being almost certainly out of the title hunt, the Australian has ruled out gifting his teammate any favours.
"It was good today," Webber said. "Pole position is one thing, but obviously race day is another, so we need to perform well for both days. And we have a very good chance of doing that."
The only previous time Red Bull have finished in the top-two positions at the end of second practice this season came two weeks ago at the Korean Grand Prix, where the constructors' champions went on to lock-out the front row during qualifying and also secure the top two steps of the podium in the race. That weekend, Webber started on pole and Vettel will be keen to avoid such a surprise this afternoon.
Alonso, however, will take great heart from learning of Webber's lack of generosity towards Vettel as well as his Ferrari being only 0.59 seconds off the lead. Much like his championship rival though, he believes the order may yet change as the track evolves.
"It was still very dirty, which is usually the case at new tracks that aren't used very often," Alonso said.
"The conditions, which change rapidly lap after lap, make it even more complicated to understand the situation relating to the hierarchy down the pit lane."
The two-time world champion's encouraging performance took a backseat courtesy of a bubbling political controversy involving his Ferrari team and the Indian government.
The Italian team are running the emblem of the Italian navy on both cars this weekend as a tribute to their country's military organisation and in hope that a solution can be reached in the case of two Italian sailors who are awaiting trial here following the deaths of two Indian fishermen. The tribute has prompted vociferous criticism in India, where many believe Ferrari should stick to practice and leave the preaching to the politicians.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of External Affairs condemned the decision as "not in keeping with the spirit of sports", but Stefano Domenicali, the Ferrari team principal, denied the team's action was in breach of FIA statutes.
Bernie Ecclestone, the chief commercial rights owner of Formula One, said he would leave the matter to India's national motorsport authority.