Lewis Hamilton has given Mercedes the perfect start to its home grand prix weekend by finishing quickest in the first practice session at the Nurburgring this morning, with Nico Rosberg underlining the pace of the Silver Arrows by coming home P2 as Red Bull struggled to produce such pace, finishing over one second behind Hamilton at the top.
The session began in a rather quiet manner following the statement issued by Pirelli and the FIA earlier today, causing teams to be particularly cautious during the first few laps on the new tires. However, they stuck to their usual programme, completing a series of installation laps early on. This did not go to plan for Fernando Alonso, with the Ferrari coming to a halt on the entry to turn five during his outlap. Paul di Resta also had difficulties, bickering with his engineer over the radio, but it was not until around 30 minutes of the session had been completed that the first benchmark time was set by Jenson Button, eventually improving to a lap of 1:33.545 on the medium compound.
McLaren’s spell at the top of the timesheets was not to last long as Red Bull and Mercedes soon hit the front. Mark Webber, who won at the Nurburgring back in 2009, led from teammate Sebastian Vettel before the Silver Arrows went fastest via the last winner at this track, Lewis Hamilton. He and Nico Rosberg then exchanged fastest times with just 0.011 seconds separating them at one point, but Mercedes enjoyed a lead of over a second from Webber in P3. Other impressive times came from Adrian Sutil (P4) and Felipe Massa (P6), with both drivers looking to build on the points that they scored last time out at Silverstone.
However, it was not fun and games for all of the field. Max Chilton, Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez all had lock-ups heading into the tight first corner, whilst Rodolfo Gonzalez (deputizing for Jules Bianchi in FP1) received a €1000 fine for speeding in the pit lane.
The final set of runs saw Vettel and Grosjean both improving as Hamilton became another victim of the first corner, using the full extent of the run-off area, but he remained secure in top spot as the heavy fuel runs prevented any real challenge to his supremacy.
Mercedes will be delighted to have kicked off their home grand prix in such dominant fashion, and the sizeable gap to their rivals will make this session all the more pleasing. The question that will be asked this afternoon is whether or not the drivers feel safe racing on the prototype Pirelli tires, with the GPDA stepping up its warning last night.
Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”