SHANGHAI: Nico Rosberg topped the time-sheets on Friday’s first free practice at the Chinese Grand Prix after a session twice halted by red flags following a series of blown tires.
The German, who has made a rampaging start to the season after winning the first two races in Australia and Bahrain, clocked a fastest lap of one minute, 38.037 seconds after a late dash with world champion Lewis Hamilton second quickest, just 0.146 behind, in the other Mercedes.
However, Rosberg’s joy was somewhat overshadowed as he was forced to limp back to the pits in Shanghai at the end of the season with what Mercedes mechanics informed was a possible “engine issue.”
Hamilton, who has been hit with a five-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race after a gearbox change, had gremlins of his own, twice spinning at turn 11.
Hamilton, a record four-time winner in China, including the past two years, sounded exasperated after a second hiccup at the same spot.
“Something’s up, I keep having this locking into turn 11,” complained Hamilton after his second spin at the hard-braking left turn.
Sebastian Vettel was third quickest for Ferrari, the most successful team in China with four victories — including the last of Michael Schumacher’s record 91 race wins 10 years ago.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo posted the fourth fastest lap with Kimi Raikkonen fifth in the second Ferrari after a late surge.
Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso returned for McLaren after his horror crash at the season opener, the Spaniard setting the 12th fastest time.
Felipe Massa set the tone for a bizarre morning by spinning off at turn four with a punctured left rear tyre — before astonishingly shredding another Pirelli on the same wheel, heralding red flags each time.
“Something is broke on the car,” the Brazilian observed with wry understatement, as officials halted the action to allow marshals to clear gravel and debris.
The problem seemed to be catching with Kevin Magnussen forced to limp back to the pits on ruined rubbers — also to his left rear — after Renault mechanics had warned him of possible brake issues.
The Swede grumbled about damaged suspension over the team radio as the red flags came out for the second time.
Williams technical head Pat Symonds blamed “wheel rim failure” for Massa’s issues, while Renault suspect debris caused Magnussen’s tire to explode.