Yeongam: McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton proved his immediate mastery of South Korea’s slippery new Formula One circuit Friday with the fastest lap at the end of first practice.
The 25-year-old Briton, one of five contenders in the championship hunt with three races remaining, sat out all but 11 minutes of the opening session.
A decent turnout of fans, many of them schoolchildren getting their first taste of Formula One, watched as other drivers struggled to stay on a dusty track that has yet to witness any racing.
When Hamilton did venture out, it was not long before he lit up the timing screens with the fastest times through all three sectors, though Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel delivered a late quick lap with faster times through the more twisty second and third sectors.
Hamilton’s best lap of one minute 40.887 seconds was 1.053 quicker than team mate Jenson Button, the reigning champion who mirrored his championship position by ending the session fifth overall.
Renault’s Robert Kubica was second, 0.081 slower than the McLaren, with Germany’s Nico Rosberg third for Mercedes.
Red Bull’s championship leader Mark Webber was seventh, with German team mate Vettel fourth, nearly half a second slower than Hamilton.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard who is level on points with Vettel and 14 adrift of Webber, was 15th on a morning that was more about learning the track and staying out of trouble than pace.
Hispania’s Brazilian Bruno Senna was the only driver to suffer mishap, his car careering off the track with 23 minutes to go with what appeared to be a rear suspension failure.
Drivers sent up regular puffs of dirt as they carved through the final corner of an anti-clockwise circuit that had resembled a building site only days earlier.
Although grip levels improved throughout the morning, conditions were treacherous with the pit lane giving particular cause for concern.
Ferrari’s Brazilian Felipe Massa reported minimal grip.
Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles told the BBC that they were treating the track like “a living entity.”
“Every time the drivers go out the track will feel different. The pit lane is very dirty and we are a little bit concerned. In eight years of doing this, it is the worst I have seen,” he added.
Finland’s Heikki Kovalainen had the honour of being the first Formula One driver to venture out on the hastily-completed track, which had its final layer of asphalt laid down only two weeks ago.