The day dawned bright but soon the rain descended over Spa Francorchamps. By mid-morning the circuit was damp enough for fans to shelter among the forests surrounding the circuit, even if patches of blue sky began to appear over Eastern Belgium.
The legendary Spa helicopter flew acrobatically low while the circuit PA roused the fans on a dreary Belgian morning. But soon 10 o’clock arrived and the green light came on for the start of the session.
Kimi Raikkonen was first out on circuit, eager to sample the Lotus E21 in the slippery conditions. The Finn opted to conduct a couple of practice starts, along with several of his rivals. The Lotus, as ever, was significantly louder than its rivals, with Mercedes’s engine giving out a noticeably lower pitch. Sebastian Vettel engaged ‘ENG 1’ and blasted down towards Eau Rouge, with a couple of Ferrari engineers keeping an eye on his start.
Jules Bianchi was the first driver to set a flying lap, although he still took over two minutes to lap a slipper Spa Francorchamps. Jenson Button was the first of the front runners to come out for some proper running and the McLaren MP4-28 appeared much better under braking than it did at Silverstone. On the exit of La Source, both Button and team-mate Sergio Perez had to contend with a little bit of oversteer, while the Lotus was more planted on traction. Romain Grosjean had a little lock up under braking and ran wide, while Raikkonen was more accurate. A brave Esteban Gutierrez also left it too late to hit the brakes and missed La Source.
After a trek through the scenic surroundings of Spa-Francorchamps, Eau Rouge provided an example of how brave each driver was being. With the circuit still damp, Red Bull drivers Vettel and Mark Webber were the first to switch to slicks and both drivers were understandably tentative as they approached the legendary complex.
A committed Perez had a little wobble at Raidillon, while Vettel’s commitment increased in spite of a half-spin further up the track at La Source. Marussia duo Bianchi and Max Chilton were so tentative up the complex that you wondered whether they’d even make the top of the hill. Webber was noticeable for his downshifting far nearer to Eau Rouge rather than the middle of the steep uphill right-hander, while the first driver to take it flat (although it was difficult to hear accurately) was Williams’s Pastor Maldonado. Credit too for Bianchi, who belied the lack of downforce in the Marussia MR02 and was equally as impressive as some of his more established rivals.
But as ever with Spa, the weather holds the upper hand. Who holds the aces? Perhaps the second free practice session will reveal more.