SINGAPORE - Lewis Hamilton was fastest in first free practice at the Singapore Grand Prix on Friday with his Mercedes comfortably ahead of the chasing Red Bulls on the demanding Marina Bay Street Circuit.
The Briton, a winner in 2009, clocked one minute 47.055 seconds in dry conditions to finish 0.365 seconds ahead of Mark Webber with the Australian's Red Bull team mate and runaway championship leader Sebastian Vettel third fastest in 1:47.885. After two difficult weekends on the low downforce circuits in Belgium and Italy, Mercedes are hoping for a marked improvement on a high downforce layout.
Hamilton won in Hungary, another tight and twisty circuit, while team mate Nico Rosberg was victorious in Monaco, the slowest of all. The German team's confidence was quickly backed up by Hamilton in the first 90-minute session of the whe 2008 world champion saying "the circuit feels twice as grippy as last year" over the team radio afeekend with tter setting the quickest lap. Rosberg clocked the fourth fastest time (1:48.239) to suggest the weekend is likely to be a straight shootout between Mercedes and Red Bull on a 23-corner circuit where overtaking is very difficult.
Kimi Raikkonen showed that his confirmed switch to Ferrari for next season will not hinder his performance as the Finn finished fifth fastest for Lotus, another car that prefers high downforce tracks, one place ahead of team mate Romain Grosjean. With rumours circulating around the paddock that Ferrari's Fernando Alonso could be poised for a move to McLaren, the Spaniard failed to make an impact and was only seventh fastest, 1.307 seconds off the pace. Alonso has won twice in Singapore but Ferrari will need to find more speed if he is overhaul a 53-point deficit to Vettel.
The session passed with little incident and with the infamous 'Singapore Sling' turn 10 chicane less of a threat after track officials took heed of driver complaints. Only a few drivers came close to brushing the wall on the exit. The teams and drivers will have two hours to analyse their data before they head out for the second free practice session at 9:30 p.m. (1330 GMT) The Singapore Grand Prix is the 13th round of the 19-race season with races in Korea, Japan, India, Abu Dhabi, the United States and Brazil to follow.
Meanwhile, McLaren confirmed Friday they are open to the shock return of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in what would be one of Formula One's most sensational coups.
Team boss Martin Whitmarsh said he would love to sign the two-time world champion, who had an unhappy season at McLaren in 2007, and even suggested the Spaniard could arrive as early as next season. "Yes, if I could," Whitmarsh told Britain's Sky Sports News, asked if he would bring back Alonso. "Most teams up and down the pitlane would happily sign Fernando Alonso, he's a very talented driver. "I expect our driver line-up for next year to stay the same but we are open to anything and in the long term he would be a great asset.
"Fernando is in charge of his own destiny, but we'll see." What started as a speculative rumour has gathered pace in Singapore after Whitmarsh and McLaren driver Jenson Button both sung the praises of Alonso, world champion in 2005 and 2006. Alonso is reported to be unhappy at Ferrari's decision to hire another former world champion, Kimi Raikkonen, as his racing partner next season. And McLaren are yet to confirm contracts for either of their drivers, Button and Mexico's Sergio Perez, for 2014, although the Briton says his deal for next year is a formality.
Whitmarsh said both drivers were likely to stay with McLaren next year but he said it was not impossible that Alonso could be racing with the British team. "Let's be frank, people want to sign Fernando Alonso because he is one of the best motor-racing drivers in the world at the moment. He is an asset to any team," Whitmarsh told Sky.
"In all probability, we will have the same line-up next year. Being realistic that's what I think will happen, but we'll see."
Alonso earlier dismissed suggestions that he's unsettled by Raikkonen's arrival at Ferrari after the Italian team decided to part ways with the inconsistent Felipe Massa.
"I was always informed about the team movements... when they decided to change Felipe they asked my opinion and I told them Kimi was the best out there in the market," he said on Thursday. Alonso had a difficult relationship with team-mate Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2007, a season which was also marked by the damaging "Spygate" scandal involving the leaking of technical information.