AP Sebastian Vettel steers his car during the first free practice at the Hungaroring racetrack near Budapest, Hungary, on Friday. The race will be held on Sunday.
Formula One championship leader Sebastian Vettel set the fastest time in the first practice session of the Hungarian Grand Prix on Friday.
The three-time defending F1 champion left it quite late before doing a timed lap but was quickly into his stride under blue skies and hot temperatures.
Vettel, who has never won in Hungary, clocked 1 minute, 22.723 seconds on the Hungaroring circuit which at 4.381 kilometers (2.7 miles) long is the third shortest in F1 after Monaco and Canada.
It was the first practice session since F1 tire manufacturer Pirelli buckled under intense pressure to modify its tires. Meltingly hot temperatures of nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) are expected for Sunday.
Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso went off the track late on.
Vettel waited until the last 30 minutes of practice to record his first timed lap and it did not take him long to shoot up the leaderboard. The German extended his lead over Alonso with a victory at his home GP and leads the Spaniard by 34 points in the last race before the midseason summer break.
Ten years ago, Alonso became F1’s youngest winner with his victory in Hungary aged 22 years and 26 days. His record was beaten by Vettel five years later.
Raikkonen still has an outside shot of winning his second F1 title, sitting 41 points behind Vettel overall in third.
The Finn had an eventful session in his Lotus.
“I’ve got water on my foot, or something, on the pedals,” he said over race radio. He eased off toward the end after getting a puncture.
Nico Rosberg set the early pace but the priorities for Mercedes were clearly elsewhere.
Mercedes has excelled in qualifying starting five of the last six races from pole position but lacks speed over a whole race. Rosberg has two GP wins, both from the front of the grid, while teammate Lewis Hamilton has none.
They both completed 28 laps as they try to improve the car’s race durability. Rosberg was eighth fastest and Hamilton 13th.
Last week, teams held in-season testing sessions at Silverstone to assess new tires provided by Pirelli, after several spectacular blowouts on the same circuit at the British Grand Prix in June prompted a furious response and even a boycott threat from drivers.
Pirelli decided that from this race until the end of the season, it will revert to last year’s tires combined with the current compounds from this season.
Meanwhile, Alonso badly needs a win, his last coming at the Spanish GP in May.
A year ago the two-time former F1 champ left Hungary atop the standings and with a 42-point lead over Vettel.
“It will be good for the motivation of the team and our focus if we can close the gap with Sebastian a little,” Alonso said. “If this gap increases, it will be a very stressful summer break for all of us.”
Ferrari has struggled recently in qualifying and Alonso has been outside of the top five on the grid for the past four races leaving him too much to do in races.
“For the four years I have been at Ferrari qualifying has been missing,” Alonso said.
Ferrari is expected to bring a significant upgrade to the car for the second part of the season.
“We think we know what the problem is and hope that after the summer we will be closer,” Alonso said.
Both Lotus cars featured the Galician flag on their rear wing end plates as a sign of respect for the 80 people who died in Wednesday’s high-speed train crash near a station in Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Galicia.
“As a Galician, I will provide all the help and support possible to those affected by this disaster, which has taken place in an area of the country I know and love so well,” Lotus team chairman Gerard Lopez said.