Many emotions on show, dust adds to challenge

Michael Schumacher steers his Mercedes GP Petronas car on FridayThe simultaneous roar of 24 Formula 1 cars, heard for the first time on Indian soil on Friday, was music to the ears of the thousands of fans who made their way to the Buddh International Circuit here. National pride was showcased the strongest as India joined an elite league of nations hosting F1 Grands Prix.

Of course, there was a whole gamut of emotions on show on Friday, not the least being the delight that HRT Racing’s Narain Karthikeyan experienced. He will have the honour of being the only Indian on the starting grid on Sunday and naturally had many things running through his mind as he went on the first lap in the morning.

His compatriot Karun Chandhok, aware that his Lotus team had sought a substitution only for the morning practice so that he could go out on track, said it felt great to finally be able to drive an F1 car at the Buddh International Circuit. “It was a real honour to be the first car to set a timed lap in front of the fans,” he said.

Karun, who logged the fastest lap time by an Indian Friday, will not be seen in action over the weekend. Karun took his Lotus around in 1 minute 32.487 seconds on his 17th lap but he knew Heiki Koavalainen would return to take the car in the afternoon. Interestingly, two-time World champion Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing) termed Karun’s absence a real shame

Former champion Lewis Hamilton had a date with the extreme emotions of ecstasy and agony. He clocked the fastest lap in morning practice – a time of one minute 26.836 seconds – but there was disappointment too as the stewards penalised him for ignoring yellow flag warnings while the marshals were close to the track. It will result in his dropping three grid positions on Sunday.

Ferrari’s two-time world champion Fernando Alonso swung the emotional pendulum from the other side – from shock to delight. In the morning, he had to pull out after just four laps with a busted engine but in the afternoon came back to emerge with the fastest lap of the day – 1:25:706.

Even the all the emotions that surged on Friday, there were some sombre reminders of the fact that motor sport can be hazardous. Many cars and drivers’ helmets carried the logos and numbers of British Indy Car racer Dan Wheldon and Italian MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who died in accidents. It was the drivers’ way of paying homage to their friends and fellow sportsmen.

Yet, none of the drivers lost focus of the task on hand – to get used to the track and help the engineers come up with the best settings for their cars.

At the end of the long day after a total of 1320 practice laps of 5.125km, the drivers included the word ‘dusty’ to their description of the interesting track that got a good mixture of corners, elevation changes and different width in some areas. The generous amounts of dust on the newly-laid out track – set in the midst of vast tracts of open land – challenged the drivers, especially if they went off the racing line.

The legendary Michael Schumacher (Mercedes GP Petronas) said the cars gripped the track well when the cars were in the racing line but found it a bit slippery when going off the line in an attempt to overtake at the wider stretches. “We need to run in the track and it needs to be cleaned enough and if that happens it will be great,” he said.

Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber, bidding to finish second in the world championship behind team-mate Sebastian Vettel, said the only concern was dust. “although it will improve as the practice run takes place, but because there is not much chance of any rain, it will improve the track as the dust is removed.

Alonso said he liked the track, even if it is very dirty. “If you go the slightest bit off the line, it is like driving on ice: this could create problems during overtaking moves on Sunday but may be by then the situation will have changed,” he said.

Talking of change, even if a couple of dogs made their appearance of track as is the wont at most events in India, Friday and the weekend will surely change India’s sporting landscape.