McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton is favourite to set the fastest time in first practice for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix but knows his chances of success in the race have been hit by an enforced five-place grid penalty.
The 2008 world champion will start from a false position after his car developed a gearbox problem, forcing a replacement, although the 27-year-old says it will not affect his approach this weekend.
Hamilton has proved himself to be the quickest man over one lap so far in 2012, taking pole position in both of the grands prix to date.
Although he was only able to translate this dominant form into third-place finishes in Australia and Malaysia, the Briton is 5/4 favourite to once again set the fastest qualifying in time in China, even if he will have to drop down five places for the start of the race.
And Hamilton is also 2/1 favourite to set the fastest time in the first practice session at the Shanghai International Circuit.
He certainly looks good to lay down a marker having shown stellar form in the two P1 sessions of 2012.
The first grand prix of the season saw McLaren confirm their strong showing in winter testing by posting the two fastest times in P1.
Jenson Button was the quickest in Australia, with Hamilton in second.
However, it was Hamilton who set the pace in P1 for Malaysia ahead of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and the Mercedes cars of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher.
Hamilton is no stranger to topping the timesheet for the first practice session in China, either, and has not been outside of the top three in P1 for any of the last three Chinese grands prix.
Of course, the Red Bulls can hardly be discounted, with Vettel (4/1) and teammate Mark Webber (7/1) finishing first and second fastest in P1 for the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix on their way to second and third behind Hamilton in the race.
Button, like Hamilton a former winner, will also prove stiff competition for his teammate and is second-favourite to top the P1 timesheet at 3/1.
For an outside bet, consider Schumacher at 10/1. The Mercedes’ innovative – and controversial – DRS should prove extremely effective on the long straights of the Shanghai International Circuit, particularly in practice where there are no limits on its use.
Schumacher was also third-fastest in P1 for Australia, fourth-fastest for P1 in Malaysia and knows his way around the track having won the Chinese Grand Prix for Ferrari in 2006.
The one concern for Mercedes will be the weather, with cold and possibly showery conditions forecast for P1.
As team principal Ross Brawn has acknowledged, the Mercedes cars are not yet able to operate to their maximum in these conditions.
That said, it could open the door to eye-catching showings from Fernando Alonso (14/1) and Sergio Perez (50/1), both of whom flourished in the wet in Malaysia.
But with the fastest car on the grid underneath him and spurred on by the prospect of his five-place grid penalty, Hamilton remains the man to back.
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