As it happened: Final Practice and Qualifying
By Geoff Creighton and Emlyn Hughes
The live commentary has ended. No further updates will be posted.
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|Emlyn Hughes and Geoff Creighton are autosport.com's live commentary team. The dynamic duo have developed an inimitable style and a reputation for fast, accurate and insightful commentary. With unrivaled access to events unfolding at the circuit, they bring you the very latest, as it happens.
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Today we will bring you coverage from the third and final practice session and then the vital qualifying hour for tomorrow's race. The schedule looks like this:
02:30 - 03:00 The breakfast bar: Ease your way into Saturday with a look back over Friday's action at Shanghai International Circuit.
03:00 - 04:00 Live commentary and updates from the final practice session.
04:00 - 06:00 Continuing track updates, as well as weather status, and any breaking news from the circuit.
06:00 - 07:00 Live commentary and updates from the qualifying session.
07:00 - 07:30 End of day reaction and round-up, where we go from here, and what we can look forward to tomorrow.
07:30 Autosport.com Live commentary ends for today.
Click the SHOW LIVE FORUM link in the red bar at the bottom of your browser window if you'd like to join the debate.
This morning we have largely clear skies and no hint of rain, although the sunshine is hazy due to the ever-present smog. The air temperature is currently 25 degrees Celsius with the track surface at 24 degrees.
Conditions are expected to stay reasonably bright for the qualifying session later. However, all this could change tomorrow, as the showers that we have mentioned all week are still forecast.
Later this afternoon following the conclusion of qualifying, we will take a detailed look at the prospects for Sunday in the weather section of autosport.com Live.
Championship contenders Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Robert Kubica were the focus of attention for many, including us, as they worked through their various programmes.
Friday morning dawned dry and reasonably bright, with dusty track conditions through the first half of the session. Grip was at a premium, and this was demonstrated by several drivers who struggled to put the power down cleanly on the exit of some of the slow corners - particularly the chicane at turns 11 and 12.
Lewis Hamilton set the quickest time with 1:35.630. His main challenger for the world title Felipe Massa was almost four-tenths of a second adrift in second place, with Robert Kubica almost nine-tenths of a second back in fifth place, behind Finns Kimi Raikkonen and Heikki Kovalainen.
Hamilton leads first session in China
In the afternoon it was a case of more of the same, as Hamilton posted the quickest time again with 1:35.750, ahead of Renault duo Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet. A rash of late laps on softer tyres slightly distorted the order in the final stages of the session, with Jarno Trulli placing fourth and Mark Webber moving up to fifth in the Red Bull RB4.
Felipe Massa wound up sixth in the first of the Ferraris - almost three-quarters of a second down on Hamilton's flyer early in the session on the harder tyre. Robert Kubica ended up 12th in the BMW Sauber.
Hamilton also tops second practice
However, the order between the drivers was not as one would normally expect, with Sebastien Bourdais finishing ahead of German hot-shot Sebastian Vettel in both sessions.
The Frenchman has been driving extremely well of late, as he looks to continue with the Toro Rosso team in 2009. Netting just two points in the last four races does not do justice to his improvement in form.
Bourdais had never driven at the Shanghai International Circuit until yesterday, therefore had to spend some time learning the track. He went on to complete 64 laps of the track in practice, but then, starting his 65th lap, he spun wildly at turn one, ending his day's work. He spoke about the incident.
"It's okay," said Bourdais. "We just had a spin so it's not the end of the day. We had a good day, especially since I didn't know the race track to start with so I was quite quickly on the pace and the car seems okay. I mean it is going to be very tight again when you look at the classification, there is a big pack of cars within two or three tenths. We are going to need to put it all together tomorrow.
"We're still trying to figure it out (the set-up) but as usual you need a balanced car. It's not easy to achieve because it's quite aggressive on the tyres here with all these very long corners and you need to get the balance right regardless of these characteristics, so it's a bit demanding."
In 2007, Toro Rosso scored a memorable fourth place in changeable conditions thanks a brilliant drive from current teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Bourdais took comfort from that performance, and hopes for more of the same this weekend.
"I don't think last year was a lucky race - they pulled it off," he said. "They earned their result on pace and it was no luck involved in this. Sebastian (Vettel) was really quick on inters and was on the right strategy and Tonio (Liuzzi) was quick as well so hopefully we can repeat that this year."
Hamilton completed 56 laps of the 3.387 mile circuit, setting a benchmark of 1:35.630 in the morning, following that up with a slightly slower 1:35.750 early in the afternoon session.
Later on, the Briton spoke to a packed media scrum about his day's work.
"I think with the harder tyre and the medium tyre I'm able to extract quite a lot out of them," said Hamilton. "I think today was probably one of the best Fridays I've had so I'm very, very happy with it.
"You can never expect them (Ferrari) to be far away because they are a great team, but they are obviously having some problems. We'll see tomorrow. Tomorrow's another day and we'll continue to work on our job and try to continue being faster."
Meanwhile, Felipe Massa was also talking a good game, as he bids to overhaul a five point deficit to Hamilton in the points race this weekend, with just two rounds remaining.
"For sure, he (Hamilton) will be very competitive like always," said Massa. "Lewis show a good pace, but I think everything he show today, not sure if it represents one hundred percent what is going to be tomorrow or Sunday. I think we are in the right direction. I think we are competitive and I think we did a good job today finding the balance, the right tuning for qualifying and especially for the race."
The Ferrari driver, alluding to a possible difference in fuel load, may or may not be correct. Time will tell throughout today and tomorrow which of these two have their sums right, but the numbers from Friday afternoon's practice session do tell a story.
Taking the second session as a baseline for racing performance, Hamilton was able to leave the pits and immediately string together a succession of laps in the mid-to-high 1:36s, interestingly with almost negligible drop-off in performance. On the other side, Massa's pace on his quickest set of laps was consistently in the high end of the 1:36s bracket, and crucially with a noticeable drop-off in performance after the first lap, as the tyres appeared to grain lightly for a time.
It is also worth noting Massa's stunning pace in Fuji. As he was recovering back through the field during the race, the Brazilian put in a spectacular burst just prior to the incident with Sebastien Bourdais, setting numerous fastest laps in succession, demonstrating supreme raw pace on a low fuel load that Hamilton could not match.
Hamilton continued on to speak about the tyre performance and the characteristics of this challenging circuit in China.
"It's quite aggressive because you have some very long corners," he said. "Especially you have the first sector, turn two and three, then you have seven, eight and nine, ten and thirteen. Very long corners, a lot of strong demand on the tyres so it is very important to have a good balance, not too much sliding, but it's a hard tyre so it's definitely the right tyre for this circuit I think."
As for the championship battle anything can happen, but the fact remains that Hamilton can clinch the title here in Shanghai this weekend if he wins the race and Massa comes home fifth or lower. Despite this, Lewis displayed a cool attitude to the prospect.
"I'm not looking at winning it (the championship) here," said the points leader. "I think last year I was thinking it would have been easy to have won it in this race, but I'm looking at two races and it's important that we have a strong car as always."
Qualifying will of course be important to both men this afternoon, and the smart money is on Hamilton and Massa occupying the front row of the grid.
Only the pair of Ferraris have yet to emerge, a standard practice for the team.
Race weekend engines and gearboxes are now in play, and to keep up with the status of each driver's multi-race components you can do this by clicking on the parts tab of the infobox.
Yesterday both of them performed a two-lap installation process.
The Japanese comes back into the pits having completed three laps of the circuit, but not having set a time yet.
Jarno Trulli joins him in the Toyota.
Timo Glock and Nelson Piquet also come out onto the circuit.
Meantime, his teammate Fernando Alonso runs wide at turn six and onto the extra tarmac area. He continues round and pits at the end of the lap.
David Coulthard goes third in the Red Bull, just under half-a-second behind Glock's time.
He says that the braking stability is not fantastic - similar to yesterday afternoon. His race engineer tells him that they will go down on the rear (rideheight) and try and get more stability on braking that way, enabling Robert to feel the car better as he is braking into the corners around this tricky circuit.
Lewis Hamilton remains on top with Sebastien Bourdais second, Barrichello third and Felipe Massa in fourth position.
His hard tyres were visibly starting to grain up as he completed the lap.
Hamilton is also running the harder tyre and knocks his teammate off the top spot with a lap of 1:36.416.
Both are using the harder tyre for this run of improving laps.
He's slightly wide in the final corner but extends his advantage with a time of 1:36.135.
Hamilton is second with Kubica third, Kovalainen fourth and Nico Rosberg up to fifth place.
Felipe Massa finished the session well down the order in 12th, three-quarters of a second off the leading pace.
The two-race power plants are installed ahead of the final practice session and Webber's motor had already completed the Japanese Grand Prix.
Webber's team opted to use their penalty-free 'joker' engine change at the Italian Grand Prix so the Australian will face a penalty if the engine was the cause of his retirement from the session.
Heidfeld fastest in final China practice
Following his first run, the Pole mentioned to his race engineer that he felt a lack of stability at the rear under braking. The set-up adjustment to that was lowering the ride height.
Later, while attention was focussed on Mark Webber's smoky retirement from the session, Robert was in the garage and less than happy about the set-up of his F1.08.
"Every time we go softer from yesterday (suspension settings), the traction is getting worse and worse, so maybe we should go in another direction - I'm just guessing. Maybe going stiffer will be better ..."
To that point in the session (43 minutes), Kubica was down on the other two championship contenders, Hamilton and Massa, by three-quarters of a second.
With time pressing on, the work for the race had to end there with issues still clearly hampering Kubica's efforts. The team then looked towards qualifying simulation runs in the last 10 minutes of the session, and Robert went out first on the softer tyres and posted a much improved 1:36.150. Moments later his teammate Nick Heidfeld clocked a 1:36.051 - the fastest time of the session, also on the softer tyre.
Qualifying will come and go later this afternoon as Kubica tries to keep in touch with Hamilton and Massa, but his main concern is clearly for the race, with his radio conversations hinting at set-up issues and a car that is not as he would like it.
Support action in between final practice and qualifying is never popular with the Formula One teams as the harder rubber used by the Porsche tin-tops tends to alter the grip levels on the circuit.
Ferrari have yet to demonstrate a particularly stellar pace and have either been practicing with significant fuel load in the cars or have yet to get the best out of the selection of hard tyres at this circuit. The former seems likely based on the normal run of form.
Lewis Hamilton stormed to pole in Japan with an excellent lap in the Mclaren while Felipe Massa admitted that he struggled to get the best out of his tyres in the decisive final phase of qualifying. A repeat could be possible today, but the shootout for pole will, as ever, be a case of getting clean laps together and minimising the small mistakes that cost fractions of a second here and there.
The session will be dry as warm conditions continue at the circuit with hazy sunshine. The ever-increasing track temperature will certainly be welcomed in the Ferrari garage.
Webber used up his penalty-free 'joker' for a precautionary engine change at the Italian Grand Prix so the Australian is unable to avoid a penalty in China.
Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Kazuki Nakajima, Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil are all in the knockout zone, and must improve their position in the remaining seven minutes or face elimination.
Kubica pits and he is pushed back into the garage for some rapid attention.
Nelson Piquet has jumped up to third in the Renault with an impressive lap and Timo Glock's Toyota is seventh after a good second effort.
These three drivers will only have one shot at making it through to the next round.
Heikki Kovalainen moves up to second with a 1:35.623, making it a McLaren one-two with Kimi Raikkonen completing the three-four with his Ferrari.
Fernando Alonso joins him ahead of the Ferraris with a fourth-place effort in the Renault.
Button's 1:37.053 was just over four-tenths of a second slower than teammate Rubens Barrichello, who made it through to the next stage in 15th place.
Sebastian Vettel has put in a stunning 1:35.386 to slot in fourth. He has a great chance of making it through to the shootout with that time.
Robert Kubica, Timo Glock, Nelson Piquet, Rubens Barrichello and Nico Rosberg are all in the knockout zone. These five drivers must improve in the remaining three minutes.
He flashes across the line and he does not improve.
One of the championship contenders is eliminated.
They are: Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Heikki Kovalainen, Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Nick Heidfeld, Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Bourdais, Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli.
Jarno Trulli in the Toyota is using the harder tyre for his first effort.
The second sector is not good for the McLaren and he drops time to the Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton is on pole for the Chinese Grand Prix!
Fernando Alonso scores a strong fourth on the grid in his Renault with Heikki Kovalainen a disappointing fifth in the McLaren.
Hamilton grabs crucial pole in China
"The car has been maybe a little bit difficult for him (Massa) all weekend - but not so difficult, I mean not more than usual to be honest. Reasonably happy in the first qualifying, you saw we did one attempt in Q2 on the soft tyre and we were quite quick there so I think that shows probably our true pace."
Rob Smedley, Ferrari, speaking to German broadcaster Premiere
Chinese Grand Prix Weather
"We are still missing a couple of tenths to be fighting with Ferrari and McLaren. Our race will be more concentrated on the Red Bulls, the Toyota - try to finish in front of them."
Fernando Alonso speaking to German broadcaster Premiere
The day started with the final hour of practice, and as usual the times were very close, with the top 17 drivers covered by less than one second. Different strategy programmes in third practice often produce a close field, but everyone knew the real pace would show itself only in the qualifying session later.
Nick Heidfeld used a set of soft tyres well and surged to the top of the times near the end of the session, with championship challengers Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica second and third respectively.
Qualifying was always going to be very important, and would turn out to be another McLaren versus Ferrari show. Heikki Kovalainen led the pack at the end of the first run in the decisive final phase, with the Ferraris in chase, but Lewis Hamilton had a poor first effort and could only manage fifth.
That was all to change on the final run for pole as Hamilton knocked Kimi Raikkonen off the top spot with a lap of 1:36.303. Massa crossed the line but could only manage third - over half-a-second behind his championship rival. Fernando Alonso grabbed fourth with another great effort in the Renault, which left it all down to Heikki Kovalainen ...
The Finn had a disaster of a final lap with a lock-up at turn 14 and crossed the line over six-tenths of a second behind Hamilton in fifth. Heikki stepped out the McLaren and was visibly disappointed with his final lap.
So Hamilton claims the pole, and his rivals Massa and Kubica will start the Chinese Grand Prix from third and eleventh places on the grid.
Tomorrow, the points will be awarded following a critical 56-lap race. Our pre-race coverage begins at 03:00 GMT. Don't miss it.