SHANGHAI (AP) — Felipe Massa had the fastest time in practice for the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday, significantly ahead of Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso once again.
Massa earned praise from his Formula One team for an “incredible” performance in 1 minute, 35.340 seconds around the Shanghai International Circuit in the afternoon session. He was 0.15 seconds ahead of Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen, with Alonso third.
Massa’s strong showing surprised his team, with engineer Rob Smedley telling him over his pit-to-car radio that “the pace is not good, it’s incredible.”
Massa had been in a prolonged slump since a life-threatening accident at the 2009 Hungarian GP. When it appeared his Ferrari career was coming to an end, the Brazilian rediscovered his confidence in the latter part of the 2012 season and carried that into the new campaign.
He has qualified ahead of Ferrari No. 1 Alonso in four straight races. If he does it again on Saturday, he will be the first teammate to out-qualify the Spaniard five straight times.
“Today, I immediately had a good feeling in the car,” Massa said. “Even if, at the start, I was not completely happy with the performance of the medium-compound (tires) and we were not as quick as our rivals, the times were good all the same.
“When I fitted the softs, the car improved a lot and this meant I was able to set the fastest time of the day. It was impressive, like driving two completely different cars.”
Massa’s performance on soft tires contrasted most other drivers, who complained of rapid degradation after as little as one lap.
Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg — who had his only career win here last year and led in China the two races before that — was fourth fastest and Red Bull’s Mark Webber was fifth.
Webber’s teammate Sebastian Vettel was 10th.
“I seemed to struggle a little more this afternoon, with the gap to the guys at the top being a bit bigger than I would like to see,” Vettel said. “It’s not a disaster. It is not as if we are in the dark, we know a little bit about what we need to do.”
Webber and Vettel have been feuding. Vettel said his decision to ignore team orders at the Malaysian GP and pass Webber in the closing stages of the race was “indirectly” related to past cases when he felt Webber went against the best interests of the team.
McLaren driver Jenson Button was sixth, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was seventh. Both drivers were among many complaining of degradation.
The sides of the main straight were carpeted in marbles of shorn rubber and the softer of the two compounds was barely lasting two laps before the times began to drop away.
Raikkonen complained over his radio that the soft tires will not work in the race, raising the prospect of a slew of early pitstops on Sunday.
However, Pirelli motorsports chief Paul Hembery said evolution of the track on Saturday meant the soft tire should last around 12 laps in the race, and he expected a two or three-stop strategy on Sunday.