Kamui Kobayashi was the fastest man in first practice for the Belgian Grand Prix as Formula One’s return from the summer break was greeted with some decidedly autumnal weather. The air temperature barely climbed into double figures while consistently heavy rain kept the drivers in their garages for much of the morning.
Many teams will have been praying for some dry running as they attempted to evaluate upgrades brought to Spa but full wet tyres were the only option when the pit lane opened. Unsurprisingly, Kobayashi was the bravest and had posted the only competitive lap time, albeit it a 2:23.141, when the rain got heavier causing a half-hour lull while it eased off.
The Toro Rossos ended the impasse with just under half the session remaining and their pace suggested that conditions may not have been as bad as first thought. Daniel Ricciardo’s first flying lap was a full three seconds quicker than Kobayashi’s benchmark while Jean-Eric Vergne had soon taken a further second off that time.
The big names were still playing it safe in their garages so it was Kobayashi who returned to the top half an hour from the end with a 2:12.015. Ricciardo was soon back ahead of him but Pastor Maldonado would beat the pair of them with the first sub-2:12 lap in the Williams despite a heart stopping moment at Eau Rouge when a snap of oversteer forced him through the escape road. Both Sauber drivers had excursions of their own after outbraking themselves into Les Combes.
When he kept his car on the black stuff, Kobayashi was seriously quick managed to sneak back in front of Maldonado to top the session, no great surprise considering the greater miles covered by the Japanese driver compared to the rest of the field. Maldonado was half a second down in second while the Toro Rosso pair took third and fourth.
The championship contenders wisely decided to restrict their running but Mark Webber produced a lap good enough for fifth in the thirteen he completed, although one of those also saw an off at Les Combes. Sergio Perez was next up in sixth with Nico Rosberg and Williams stand-in Valtteri Bottas completing the top eight.
Sebastian Vettel was a low-key ninth in the second Red Bull ahead of Michael Schumacher who nearly began his 300th Grand Prix weekend with a crash at Eau Rouge but showed his reactions were as quick as ever after his Mercedes threatened to lose control mid-corner. The Force Indias of Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg were eleventh and thirteenth, sandwiching the impressive Timo Glock while Vitaly Petrov finished as the leading Caterham in fourteenth.
McLaren turned a few heads with some new aerodynamic alterations to the MP4-27 but with no dry track time to test them out, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button completed just thirteen laps between them. Hamilton almost aquaplaned off on an installation lap mid-session and didn’t set a time whatsoever until the dying seconds. His 2:16.827 was only good enough for fifteenth with teammate Button three hundredths slower in sixteenth.
Heikki Kovalainen and the two HRTs completed the field as far as representative lap times where concerned as both Lotus and Ferrari chose not to risk their cars. Championship leader Fernando Alonso completed four incident-free laps but the same couldn’t be said for his teammate Felipe Massa who had the misfortune of seeing his engine blow up on just his second tour, forcing him to park his F2012 at the Bus Stop.