GREATER NOIDA, India – Champion-elect Sebastian Vettel set a record-breaking pace in Indian Grand Prix free practice Friday as the troubled race got the go-ahead when a court challenge was postponed.
The 26-year-old has insisted he’s in no rush to wrap up the title but he was a man in a hurry at Buddh International Circuit, setting new quickest laps in both practice runs.
Vettel, who only needs to finish in the top five to seal his fourth straight world title, clocked 1min 26.68secs in the first practice and improved with 1:25.72 in the second, surpassing his own 2011 record of 1:27.24.
It set up a Red Bull one-two in both sessions with soon-to-retire Mark Webber second behind Vettel on each occasion. The team are also expected to seal the constructors’ title this weekend.
The first 10 drivers all finished under the young German’s old lap record in the later session, promising a fast race on Sunday at the venue on New Delhi’s outskirts.
Both Vettel and Webber were delighted with the practice sessions, but warned that Red Bull still had a lot of work remaining ahead of Sunday’s race, especially on the tyres.
“Obviously the soft tyre is not lasting very long,” Vettel told reporters. “The track is rubbering in, but it will improve and it should be better tomorrow.
“On Sunday it could be a short stint on the option tires, but the track will improve on the last two days.”
Webber said the sessions went well but the task was not over yet.
“We can talk as much as we want, but it’s the race that counts,” he said. “We have some work to do tonight to improve.
“The car is pretty good, but we need to work on the tyres. We need to make sure they are as consistent as possible.”
Vettel is on a five-race winning streak and is unbeaten in India, after claiming both previous races from pole position in 2011 and 2012.
Anything higher than sixth and Vettel will join compatriot Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina as only the third man to win four consecutive world titles.
Vettel even had a chance of sealing the championship without leaving the garage, before India’s Supreme Court delayed hearing a petition for its cancellation in a row over taxes.
Cancellation would have left Vettel 90 points ahead in the standings with only 75 available from the final three races in Abu Dhabi, the United States and Brazil.
But the Supreme Court in New Delhi said it would hear the petition, related to allegations of unpaid entertainment taxes from last year’s race, next week.
The court challenge adds to concerns over the Indian Grand Prix’s future after it was left off next year’s Formula One schedule, although it is slated to return in 2015.
Romain Grosjean of Lotus was third quickest in second practice on the sweeping Buddh lay-out, ahead of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen.
But Mercedes’ Rosberg admitted that the Red Bulls were so strong that their rivals would be fighting for third place on Sunday.
“We are fighting for third place on the podium because the Red Bulls are just too quick,” the German said. “Pole is out of question because the Red Bulls are too fast, especially Vettel. “It’s a bit of a pity but that’s the way it is, so third place is the target.”
The second practice was marred by an unfortunate accident when a wheel nut fell off Pastor Maldonado’s Williams and brought his lap to a premature end.
The incident, shortly after a tire stop, was similar to what Maldonado experienced during practice at the Japanese Grand Prix two weeks ago and earned him a 60,000 euros fine.