On the face of it, the second practice session promises a closely-contested race around the new Buddh circuit, with the Ferraris right in the mix. However, even more than at prior races this year, the picture is almost certainly skewed.
First practice was all about replacing simulated data with the real thing, cleaning up the circuit - and showcasing once again Lewis Hamilton's brilliance at learning a new track and his continued knack of getting himself in front of the driver stewards. His yellow flag incident - for which he has received a three-place grid penalty - came after he set a personal best sector time (up to that time) while yellow flags for Pastor Maldonado's accident were being waved.
Hamilton was handed a grid penalty for ignore yellow flags © sutton-images.com
The clinching bit of evidence for the stewards was that he was using DRS during the sector. He later beat that time with his last lap of the session, one that put him almost 0.6s clear of the field.
But into the afternoon and the more revealing running on a cleaned-up track with teams running through race and qualifying simulations, it was Felipe Massa's Ferrari quickest (a full second quicker than Hamilton's morning time) narrowly from Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull, with the nearest McLaren over 0.7s adrift.
In deconstructing such a confusing pattern, it's helpful to look at the last two serious runs of FP2 when the track was at its most rubbered in and representative. In the first of these late runs the teams are generally trying to replicate qualifying laps while the final one is about race-stint simulation.
Looking first at the qualifying-type runs, Massa led from Vettel, with Fernando Alonso's Ferrari trailing them by a couple of tenths but 0.5s quicker than Hamilton in the quicker of the McLarens. In this it should be recalled that by historical precedent this season Red Bull tend to run conservative fuel loads in this stage, disguising their real pace by as much as 0.5s. Ferrari tend to run more genuinely qualifying light. The fact that the Ferraris were consistently the quickest in the middle sector - the only one requiring repeated braking and acceleration - is probably a further giveaway about relative fuel loads, even though such types of combinations do suit the traits of their car.
So although the true form of Ferrari was probably flattered in this part of the session, the question is by how much. There's every reason to believe the car's form is improving. The new Red Bull-like front wing made its debut in Korea was regularly seen trailing sparks from its endplates, indicating a very competitively low front ride height.
In fact, as Massa and Alonso were recording those first and third fastest times, they were on the old wing, and the new one - which had been used throughout first practice on both cars - was undergoing FIA flexibility tests, which it apparently passed, for it was back on both cars for the long runs at the end.
So although educated guesswork on relative fuel loads tells us we can be fairly certain that the Red Bull is going to qualify faster than the Ferrari despite these times, what about the McLaren, pole sitter at the last race and just 0.009s behind in the previous one?
Massa put Ferrari on top on Friday © sutton-images.com
Hamilton's best was 0.748s adrift of Vettel's. For that to be explainable by fuel load alone would require Lewis to have been carrying around 20kg more fuel even than the Red Bull. That seems unlikely and it's just possible that the superb new circuit's flowing curves are a perfect fit for the Red Bull's performance map.
That interpretation would certainly seem to be supported when moving onto the long runs of the final part if the session, where Vettel was quickest, 0.7s quicker than Jenson Button's McLaren, the first non-Red Bull. But again we'd counsel caution with this too - for in this part of practice Red Bull tend to run a second stint fuel load, whereas McLaren fuels as if starting the race.
The difference of maybe 30kg around here is what is expected to be a two/three-stop race. If that is indeed the case - as it has been on many occasions this year - then the McLaren is right there in race trim, the Ferrari slightly adrift but coming right into the picture if tyre degradation is heavier than expected.
In summary, on the evidence of Friday, McLaren does not appear to be in a position to repeat its recent threat to Red Bull in qualifying but in race trim it should be right there.
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