Michael Schumacher gave Mercedes cause for optimism after comfortably setting the pace in first practice In Italy. The Brackley-based squad have endured a miserable summer but the long straights of Monza would appear to suit the Mercedes-powered runners with Schumacher leading McLaren’s Jenson Button and his own teammate Nico Rosberg.
With no rain to worry about, the teams took their time before getting down to business with Kimi Raikkonen setting a 1:27.369 to lead Felipe Massa at the half hour mark. Lewis Hamilton, keen to concentrate on racing after an eventful week off-track, broke into the 1:26s in his McLaren with the fastest time in all three sectors.
Schumacher was already showing potential in the W03 with the second quickest time, two tenths behind Hamilton, and the 43 year old went faster still on his next lap to go top of the timesheets. His 1:25.961 only gave him a tenth over the rest of the field but his next attempt was substantially faster, extending his lead by half a second. His main opposition now came from the other McLaren with Jenson Button clocking a 1:25.856.
Fresh from his Spa success, Button was showing promising pace once again and closed the gap to three tenths on his next attempt. Although the Briton wouldn’t get any closer in the 40 minutes that remained, McLaren voiced their delight with his race performance over the team radio.
With half an hour to go, Rosberg moved the second Mercedes into the top three ahead of Alonso and the championship leader gave the Tifosi a close look at his Ferrari by stopping at the Rettifilio chicane. The team seemed fairly relaxed despite the problem and with Felipe Massa up in fifth ahead of Hamilton, will have taken great encouragement from the speed of the F2012.
The Renault-powered runners languished down the order for most of FP1 but Kimi Raikkonen dragged the Lotus up to seventh in the last twenty minutes. The Finn was arguably pushing harder than anyone else on track, as demonstrated by a spectacular moment at the Variante della Roggia when he took too much kerb and launched his car through the air.
Sergio Perez was eighth ahead of Mark Webber in the leading Red Bull and Pastor Maldonado, another Renault-powered competitor in tenth. Like Alonso in the Ferrari, the Venezuelan ended the morning parked at the side of the road with his stoppage caused by a hydraulic failure which caused his DRS to stay open.
Sebastian Vettel was eleventh fastest ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Williams reserve Valtteri Bottas with Kamui Kobayashi down in fourteenth. Next came Jerome d’Ambrosio who put in a solid performance in the second Lotus to finish a second down on his teammate, keeping Jules Bianchi’s Force India and the two Toro Rossos behind him.
Caterham, Marussia and HRT were line astern at the back of the field but Ma Qing Hua made history by becoming the first Chinese rider to take part in an official practice session. The 24 year old, standing in for Narain Karthikeyan, was slowest of all but certainly didn’t disgrace himself.