Michael Schumacher’s claim he is not in the running for victory on his comeback in Bahrain on Sunday appears to hold little water.
The seven-times Formula One champion and Mercedes GP team-mate Nico Rosberg finished first and third at the end of Friday’s two practice sessions ahead of Sunday’s opening grand prix.
Schumacher has consistently dithered over his prediction in pre-season as to his prospects before categorically stating yesterday he was not in the running for the race win at the Sakhir circuit.
Appreciably, with a re-fuelling ban in place for this season, it has become increasingly difficult to assess lap times as you can never be sure as to a car’s fuel load.
But with Rosberg at the top of the timesheets overall today with a lap of one minute 55.409 seconds, and Schumacher less than half a second adrift of his fellow German, Mercedes are certainly in the running to take the chequered flag.
Sandwiched in between the duo was McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, his car now declared legal following scrutineering in relation to a clever aerodynamic device.
The design employs Hamilton or team-mate Jenson Button to close off a vent in the cockpit of their car using their legs, which in turn helps to stall the rear wing for extra straight-line speed.
Despite FIA race director Charlie Whiting giving the all clear, it has been suggested at least one team will protest after the race.
With reigning world champion Button fourth quickest, 0.667secs behind Rosberg, it meant that Mercedes-powered cars occupied the top four slots.
At the recently-lengthened track that sits in the middle of the Bahraini desert, stretched from 5.412km to 6.299km, last year’s championship runner-up Sebastian Vettel pushed his Red Bull up to fifth, albeit a second down.
On his Williams debut, promising prospect Nico Hulkenberg made it four Germans in the top six, followed by Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, whose team-mate Fernando Alonso was ninth, sandwiching an improved run from Renault’s Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov.
Given the practice times in the first session compared to the second, it was abundantly clear the Ferrari duo were running with increased fuel loads later in the day.
Sauber’s pairing of Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi hauled themselves up to 10th and 11th with barely a tenth of a second separating them, albeit just under two seconds behind Rosberg.
Force India’s Adrian Sutil, who led the way in the morning on a low-fuel run, ran heavy in the afternoon as he was 12th overall, 0.8secs slower than earlier in the day.
Team-mate Vitantonio Liuzzi was half a second down in 14th, with the veteran of Williams’ Rubens Barrichello splitting the duo in 13th.
Renault’s Robert Kubica, who was third in the morning, was another who experimented with a fuller fuel tank as he was down in 15th in the afternoon, almost three seconds off the pace.
Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari was 16th and Red Bull’s Mark Webber 17th with a lap time just over the two-minute mark for a circuit that now boasts a further eight corners compared to a year ago.
In the battle of the newcomers, the Lotus duo of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli finished 18th and 19th, edging out Virgin Racing’s Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi.
However, Trulli’s car lost a piece of bodywork running down the pit straight, whilst Glock completed just three laps due to problems.
The Lotus’ were 5.5 seconds behind Rosberg, with the Virgins just over another second down.
In 20th, Hispania Racing’s Bruno Senna managed to complete 17 laps on his team’s first outing as financial issues over the winter resulted in them not completing a single lap of testing.
Senna’s F1 debut, however, ended badly at the chequered flag to the session – in which he finished 11.5 seconds down – as he lost a piece of the right wheel that forced him to park his car off track.
Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi also had his problems as he managed just one installation lap in the afternoon due to an issue at the rear of the car.
As for India’s Karun Chandhok, the Hispania Racing driver failed to take to the track at all today due to a suspension issue.