A hectic week at the Buddh International Circuit is about to get even busier and PlanetF1's man in India looks at some of the action...
A slew of promotional events by various teams trying to make their mark in a relative new market followed by a slow Thursday finally leant into Friday practice. The V8s roared up again at the Buddh International Circuit in New Delhi and the 2012 Indian Grand Prix is 'go'.
A strong crowd at the inaugural race last year displayed in full that Formula One is passionately followed in this country, and it is only given that everyone involved - the teams, their drivers and of course the local media - would try to cash-in on the buzz. It has been an exciting build-up to only the second ever F1 race here. A couple of drivers made some interesting observations, both about the track and life outside of it, and Ferrari raked up a controversy with the Italian Naval flag on their cars.
Let's begin with Michael Schumacher, probably the most popular F1 driver in India as also any other part of the world. He has categorically stated that this will be his last time racing here, but declined to comment on whether he will be joining Mercedes in an administrative or consultant capacity. 'I don't want to think about it, not even a little bit. I have four more races to go!'
When one asked if the quickest time in Monaco qualifying proved a point, that circuit being the true test of driver skill, he said: 'I think it is safe to assume that I can still compete at the highest level.' Of course, the Mercedes package hasn't been up to the mark in three seasons running and it will be one of the great unknowns what Schumacher might have delivered if he were to drive for any of the top three teams.
Lewis Hamilton certainly seemed to think that the seven-time Champion would have been on the money, if that were the case. And he was a little disappointed that he didn't get to race Schumacher properly, never mind their little run-in at Monza last season. 'When I came to F1 in 2007, he had already left and I really wanted to race him, having grown up watching him win all the time. And when he came back, he never had a car that could really compete, so that was a shame!'
Lewis' decision to move to Mercedes has also garnered quite a bit of attention, obviously. And he has no qualms about teaming up with Nico Rosberg or even in fact filling up Schumacher's shoes next season. What he is worried about, perhaps, is saying good-bye to McLaren. 'I have been to Woking but not really said farewell. The season is still on and I did a little simulator work there. I will go back once it's all done. I am having dinner with Ron Dennis after the Abu Dhabi race, so maybe that will be the beginning of the end', he reflected.
Force India are the one team who have garnered most attention overall, given it's their 'home race'. They are under no illusions, however, of scoring a podium because now all the front-runners have more or less sorted out their pace and are fighting for vital Championship points. As we saw in Korea, teams won't really risk much, so the probability of fluke results (such as one which might see Force India on the podium) happening is highly diminished. Having said that the circuit here is dusty to begin with and will only rubber in as the weekend goes on, with tyre-wear expected to be high again. Plus, there is a sudden chill in the air and winter is fast approaching. It means that the temperatures will fall as the race goes on, not the best thing for these Pirellis with narrow operating windows.
The title contenders are quite wary of this fact. Friday practice sessions were spent gauging the degradation of tyres, both compounds. The general consensus is that it will be two stints on the prime tyres if drivers opt to start on the options. But those who manage their tyres well and have the ability to spring a surprise (Yes you Sergio Perez, never mind your cold!) might just do so with a one-stopper.
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber seemed happy with their Friday sessions. Red Bull are looking very strong on both long and short stints, and are a shoe-in for a fourth consecutive win. It might become a contest between the two for Webber has been quoted as saying that he 'will not move over for Sebastian'. Meanwhile the champion has gleefully claimed that 'Red Bull will cross that bridge when they get to it!'
Elsewhere, it is for certain that Ferrari won't need such orders. Not because Fernando Alonso will be quicker than you-know-who. But because Felipe Massa just can't keep his car off those damn kerbs. The Scuderia though need to be worried about their image in this country, with their flag-stunt not being too appreciated. Atleast they should accept that they made a political statement but Stefano Domenicali just wouldn't listen in the press conference, almost dragging questions to the point of argument.
Moving on then, McLaren might spoil Ferrari's party as Lewis is looking the part here, especially on short stints. Race pace seems to be a common factor for the front-runners so if he gets in between Vettel and Alonso, it will be a very keenly fought battle. At the other end of the grid, Narain Karthikeyan's high point of the season has come about as he once again races at home.
A hectic week is about to get even busier with qualifying and race-day on the horizon. But the best bit, from a personal point of view, has been the arrival of Kimi Raikkonen. This is his first visit to India, where he competes with Schumacher for popularity. When asked how he found the country, he said, 'Outside the hotel looks good, so can't complain. I like the circuit too. It's not as creepy as the one in Korea!'