SAKHIR // It is perhaps not surprising that on the day Michael Schumacher officially returned to Formula One, German domination was evident. Yet while four of the six fastest times posted during free practice at the Bahrain Grand Prix yesterday were set by those representing the black, red and yellow of Deutschland, it was not the seven-time world champion who led the pack.
Force India's Adrian Sutil, of Germany, finished fastest in the morning, but it was his compatriot Nico Rosberg, teammate of the 41-year-old Schumacher at Mercedes GP, who clocked the quickest time of the afternoon at 1min 55.409sec leading McLaren's Lewis Hamilton by 0.445. Schumacher finished third, narrowly ahead of the reigning champion Jenson Button, while the German duo Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull and Nico Hulkenberg of Williams were close behind.
While Schumacher, returning after three years in retirement, admitted to feeling "a little rusty" and conceded he had to quickly "get back into the routine", Rosberg looked composed as he completed 23 laps of the extended Sakhir track. "We improved the car over the course of the day, but it didn't feel great initially with the new track, lower down-force, and the conditions were very sandy in the morning," said the 24-year-old. "We had a few balance issues to work on, but it came together very well in the afternoon. There are areas where we can still improve, but overall, we learned a great deal so it's a positive start to the weekend."
The Bahrain circuit has been lengthened by almost a kilometre to include eight new turns, but the changes have not been well received by the 23 drivers who tested it for the first time yesterday. Button, who won here last year, complained of his head "bouncing around all over the place" because of new undulations, while Renault's Robert Kubica added: "The new part does not look very interesting at all. It is very slow with lots of bumps and is tough on the tyres. I definitely prefer the old layout."
And it is not only on the track that teams have grievances. Kubica's boss at Renault, Bob Bell, accused McLaren of making a mockery of the F1 rulebook after the British manufacturers utilised a rear wing that appears to be fed by a duct that can be affected by the driver's body movement. "They have driven a carthorse through the spirit of the rules and regulations," said Bell of McLaren, whose controversial body fitting was deemed legal on Thursday by the FIA, world motor sport's governing body. "They have opened up another arms race; it's going to cost everybody a lot of money. The governing bodies need to be a lot stronger with these things."
Meanwhile, Bell's predecessor at Renault, Flavio Briatore, has vowed never to return to the sport, despite having his indefinite ban lifted. The Italian, expelled by the FIA last year following alleged race-fixing at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, was unequivocal when asked if he had intentions of returning to the sport he was involved in for more than 20 years: "I exclude it 100 per cent," he said.