Lewis Hamilton led the way for McLaren as Formula 1 explored the Korean Grand Prix circuit for the first time in Friday morning practice at the hurriedly completed Yeongam track.
Robert Kubica ended up second for Renault, 0.081sec down on Hamilton, with Mercedes' Nico Rosberg third ahead of Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull and Jenson Button in the second McLaren, but the positions and times will prove largely irrelevant as the circuit develops and teams acclimatize.
Track conditions were, if anything, even more dusty and treacherous than expected when practice got under way. It was Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen who had the honor of officially christening the circuit as he left the pit lane first, while Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari set the first flying-lap time in a leisurely 2m20.611sec. That mark would be beaten, but not immediately as most drivers crept around the course extremely tentatively until grip levels started to improve.
As times came down, Sakon Yamamoto, Michael Schumacher, Sebastien Buemi, Mark Webber, Nico Hulkenberg, Vettel, Button and Rosberg all had spells at the top of the timing screen before the McLarens came to the fore in the final minutes.
Though he had been one of the first out on track, Hamilton did not go for a flying lap until the closing stages, having spent a while in the McLaren pit changing to the newer rear wing. He soon got up to speed when he resumed running, and after swapping the top spot with teammate Button (who was also using the latest wing), he made sure he would end up in front with a blistering 1m40.887sec lap – 1.053sec faster than the sister McLaren. Hamilton could have gone quicker still, setting an even better time in sector one on his next lap before pitting.
But he did not maintain his one-second cushion, with Kubica getting to within 0.081sec with his own last lap. Late improvements from Rosberg and Vettel then pushed Button back to fifth.
Schumacher stayed near the front and took sixth for Mercedes, ahead of points leader Webber's Red Bull. Nick Heidfeld (Sauber) and Williams duo Hulkenberg and Rubens Barrichello completed the top 10, while title contender Fernando Alonso had another quiet Friday morning and was only 15th for Ferrari.
Despite the slippery track and relative lack of run-off, no one made it into the barriers in the opening session. Turns 1 and 11 proved particularly tricky, though, with several drivers kicking up dust in both corners' run-off, while Kamui Kobayashi investigated the grass in the pit entry in his Sauber and Vettel had a very near miss with Yamamoto in the final corners.
Bruno Senna provided the session's main incident when his Hispania arrived at Turn 9 with its left rear suspension already awry. The Brazilian spun to a halt without reaching the barriers. Also missing out on mileage was Jarno Trulli, whose Lotus was sidelined with gearbox problems.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap Laps
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m40.887s 15
2. Robert Kubica Renault 1m40.968s + 0.081s 18
3. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m41.152s + 0.265s 21
4. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m41.371s + 0.484s 18
5. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m41.940s + 1.053s 16
6. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m42.022s + 1.135s 25
7. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m42.202s + 1.315s 23
8. Nick Heidfeld Sauber-Ferrari 1m42.293s + 1.406s 18
9. Nico Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1m42.678s + 1.791s 21
10. Rubens Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1m42.883s + 1.996s 23
11. Vitaly Petrov Renault 1m42.896s + 2.009s 22
12. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m43.054s + 2.167s 25
13. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m43.309s + 2.422s 20
14. Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1m43.602s + 2.715s 18
15. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m43.928s + 3.041s 21
16. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m43.940s + 3.053s 23
17. Vitantonio Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1m44.887s + 4.000s 21
18. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m45.141s + 4.254s 26
19. Timo Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1m45.588s + 4.701s 20
20. Jerome D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth 1m46.613s + 5.726s 17
21. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 1m47.115s + 6.228s 22
22. Sakon Yamamoto Hispania-Cosworth 1m50.347s + 9.460s 29
23. Bruno Senna Hispania-Cosworth 1m50.821s + 9.934s 15
24. Jarno Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1m51.701s + 10.814s 11
All timing unofficial