2013 U.S. GP Practice Two: Sebastian Vettel back on top in Austin from Mark Webber
Red Bull and Mercedes lead way; returnee Kovalainen impresses
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 18/11/13 4:37pm
The opening morning of running on F1's second visit to the expansive Circuit of the Americas had proved something of a bizarre affair thanks to early-morning fog, technical problems with the medical helicopter and the sight of Vettel marooned in 18th place on the timesheets.
However, in glorious clear skies and warm, albeit slightly blustery, weather in the afternoon in the vibrant Texan capital, things proved far more straightforward, and by 2013 standards predictable, as runaway World Champion Vettel led a Red Bull one-two with a best time at the end of the medium-tyre runs of 1:37.305.
Underlining the renewed sense of normality, the Mercedes pair of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton took third and fourth positions respectively - although once more the pace gap to the lead Red Bull was significant, half a second on this occasion.
It therefore proved to be fifth place where arguably the day's surprise story came from as Lotus new boy, and F1 race returnee, Heikki Kovalainen capped an impressive debut in the E21.
The Enstone team's experienced Kimi Raikkonen replacement, who only first sat in the Lotus on Wednesday, outpaced the in-form Romain Grosjean in the sister car by nearly two tenths of a second and made no obvious errors during his 41 laps in the afternoon.
Furthermore, Kovalainen then lapped respectively close to the sister Lotus when they both ran on the hard tyre during the latter race simulations.
And although it is early days in the weekend, and few would bet against Grosjean leading the team's challenge come qualifying, Lotus's decision to overlook their inexperienced reserve driver Davide Valsecchi in preference for the race-winning Kovalainen looks to have initially been vindicated.
It also proved to be an encouraging start to the weekend for Sauber who saw their drivers finish sixth and seventh on the times, Esteban Gutierrez fractionally faster than team leader Nico Hulkenberg.
But for the Swiss team's engine suppliers Ferrari, however, P2 proved something of a reality check as morning pacesetter Fernando Alonso ended up 1.1s off the Red Bulls down at the foot of the top ten.
Saying that, the F138's pace in the faster afternoon session may be slightly deceptive as, despite the 5.5km track's grip levels having ramped up through the day, Alonso's P2 best on the medium tyres was actually one tenth slower than the 1:38.343 time he managed on the hard tyres in the disjointed morning session.
McLaren's Jenson Button also slipped down the order as the lap times among the front-runners quickened with the Briton ending up between Grosjean and Alonso in ninth place.
The Briton's weekend had already suffered a blow with the news on the eve of P2 that he had been handed a three-place grid penalty for qualifying for overtaking Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvat under the morning's red flags.
The closing minutes of P2 were played out under yellow flag conditions after Max Chilton's Marussia was pitched off the road thanks to brake failure. But while the recovery crane arrived at the scene promptly the try and winch the stricken challenger away, the task proved somewhat more complicated for the marshals who managed to beach the machine in the gravel.
Even more perplexing for the Banbury-based team, however, was the pace of their cars in P2: Chilton and Jules Bianchi lapped nine seconds off the pace and five seconds off usual rivals Caterham alone. However, the team did run five second quicker during P1.