Mark Webber demonstrated yesterday that driving a second-hand model is not always taking a step back. The Australian driver is using his Red Bull-Renault teammate Sebastian Vettel's old chassis for the British Grand Prix after causing considerable damage to his car in Valencia two weeks ago when he flipped it over the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus-Cosworth.
The news of Webber having to take a chassis that Vettel had dropped after the Monaco Grand Prix - because he was unhappy with the way it handled - caused some interest as to how Webber would fare with it. But if Webber, 33, were at all reticent about using his teammates' cast-off equipment, he did a good job of hiding it. He set a sensational pace during yesterday's practice sessions at the new-look Silverstone circuit, which were held in front of a crowd of 85,000.
After Vettel had topped the timesheets in the opening session, Webber took charge in the second 90-minute period, clocking a time of 1min 31.234secs to be fastest, ahead of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, Vettel and the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa. The Red Bulls were the class of the field, with both cars more visibly committed through the fast sweeping corners of Becketts. It will be a major surprise if it is not either Webber or Vettel who starts tomorrow's 52-lap race from pole position after today's qualifying session.
Webber, who suffered a late electrical problem, is not taking anything for granted and is expecting more from his chief rivals McLaren-Mercedes in qualifying today. "It went pretty good apart from an electrical problem at the end of the day which was a bit of shame as I missed some laps," he said. "But the car seems to be going pretty well here. I think a few of the teams are sandbagging a bit, but anyway we are pretty happy with our programme and we are looking forward to qualifying.
"McLaren aren't showing everything today and I expect them to come right back up to us tomorrow." McLaren went backwards as the day progressed as they tried a number of new parts on the car, including a changed rear diffuser. Lewis Hamilton, the world championship leader, was second in the first session, but was eighth in the second and he went off the track on a number of occasions as he tried to the find the limit of his newly developed McLaren.
Teammate Jenson Button, the reigning world champion, also toiled as he could set only the 13th fastest time, almost two seconds adrift of Webber's best, and his hopes of winning his home race for the first time seem unlikely without a huge transformation in fortunes today. Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principle, said his team had found the going tough. "A difficult day for us," he said. "It is a new package and we got through a lot of learning so I think we have got some useful information, but now we have to turn that information into a way to make the car a bit quicker tomorrow."
The shock was that by the end of yesterday's practice that it was Ferrari who were emerging as Red Bull's nearest rivals as McLaren foundered. Alonso and Massa had struggled in the first session, both more than two seconds off the pace, but as the Italian team continue to experiment with their own version of the F-duct, a mechanism that helps generate more straightline speed, their lap times lowered.
Hamilton was not the only driver to go off during an eventful day. A number of drivers, including Vettel, Massa and Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, all spun. The bumps in the new section of the circuit at Abbey caused problems all day, and how the drivers handle it in qualifying today will be key. Transmission problems meant that Jarno Trulli completed only three laps in his Lotus. He ended the day at the bottom of the standings, 11 seconds slower than Webber.
A miserable day for Lotus was capped when Kovalainen broke down on track in the closing stages of the second practice with a gearbox problem. firstname.lastname@example.org