Fernando Alonso has finished fastest in the first free practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix, taking advantage of the changeable conditions to start the second half of the Formula One season in the best possible fashion.
The only window for dry running came midway through the session and P1 frequently switched hands. Eventually, Alonso came out on top ahead of Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil, marking a good result for Force India. Similarly, McLaren impressed to finish fourth (Perez) as did Sauber in seventh and eighth.
The session began in damp conditions after overnight rain and intermittent showers in the hours leading up to FP1, and this forced the teams to take to the track on the intermediate tire to begin with. However, conditions were not dry enough to prompt anything more than an installation lap from the teams until Jules Bianchi posted the first time of 2:07.578 with fifteen minutes of the session gone. However, this was soon beaten by last year’s winner Jenson Button who went over seven seconds quicker but soon returned to the pits for fear of damaging his tires.
Mark Webber was the first driver to venture out on the dry tire half way through the session, but he quickly paid the price by running wide at La Source and eventually returned to the pits after three laps. However, Perez was not put off and took on the orange-ringed tire along with Sebastian Vettel, but the damp track in sectors one and three made quick times impossible at first. The world champion sent his RB9 into a spin at La Source as did Valtteri Bottas in the Williams. Eventually though, conditions improved enough for the hard tire to come into widespread use as both McLarens dipped under the two minute mark to go P1 and P2 with just over half an hour remaining.
Even in changeable conditions, Mercedes’ one-lap pace was once again present as Nico Rosberg moved up the order along with Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo. Just as they did during practice at Silverstone, Toro Rosso appear to be quick on a drying track. Button, Alonso, Perez and Hamilton all enjoyed a spell at the top, but the 2008 world champion was forced to take evasive action after Esteban Gutierrez slowed on the racing line heading into the Bus Stop chicane. Alonso eventually took a hold of P1 ahead of di Resta and Sutil, but conditions once again worsened and most of the field returned to the pits with fifteen minutes to go. Despite some late runs, none of the drivers could improve and Alonso remained on top come the checkered flag.
With the forecast suggesting that rain could affect the race on Sunday, this result may be an early indicator of the pecking order should there be a wet session later on in the weekend.