Michael Schumacher said, in the build-up to the Italian Grand Prix, that he continues to hold a soft spot for Monza, and underlined that feeling by posting the fastest time of Friday morning practice in the royal park.
After a slow start to the 90-minute session, which saw a handful of other drivers flirt with top spot, Schumacher stamped his authority on proceedings by banging in a lap of 1min 25.422secs which, at the time, was over a second clear of the pack. Although the German then spent the remainder of his 26 laps chasing an improvement while beginning to work through his preparation for the remainder of the weekend, no-one proved able to match his early mark, with Jenson Button getting closest of all, on 1min 25.723secs, and Nico Rosberg, in the second Mercedes, taking third, just a fraction further back.
It was noticeable, however, that both Button, who arrives in Italy on the back of victory in the last round at Spa, and Lewis Hamilton, who ended the session sixth fastest, were carrying more wing than the two Mercedes, with Button audibly bouncing off the rev limiter along the main straight.
There was noise of a different sort from the back of championship leader Fernando Alonso's Ferrari with three-quarters of the session in the books, the Spaniard quickly pulling off at the end of the straight with what appeared to be a broken engine. Alonso was fourth when the chequered flag fell.
Pastor Maldonado also ended the session on the side of the road, with possible hydraulic problems crippling his Williams after he clocked the tenth-best time. Between Alonso and the Venezuelan lay Felipe Massa - as Ferrari gave the tifosi
encouragement for the rest of the meeting - Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez and Mark Webber. Intriguingly, the Australian featured well up on the speed trap at the end of the opening sector, sitting behind the two Mercedes despite the RB8 not being renowned for its out-and-out pace, while Romain Grosjean's stand-in at Lotus, Jerome d'Ambrosio, also looked quick through the traps, even if he eventually ended his F1 return down in 15th spot.
Sebastian Vettel, newly returned to second in the championship, just missed the top ten, lapping 0.004secs slower than Maldonado, but otherwise it was business as usual in the middle of the pack, with Williams, Sauber and Sahara Force India scrapping over the positions ahead of the regular tailenders from Caterham, Marussia and HRT, the latter running debutant Ma Qing Hua for the first time on an F1 weekend. The Chinese aspirant was nearly two seconds off the pace of team-mate Pedro de la Rosa, and a shade under six seconds shy of Schumacher.
There were serious incidents during the session, although Raikkonen, Hamilton and others discovered the launching properties of the severest kerbs protecting the chicanes, and the Finn was noticeable for making as much of the run-off at Ascari as possible as he searched for speed on the run down to the Parabolica.
The biggest relief for the teams, however, was that the session was run in glorious sunshine, as opposed to the rain that has greeted the start of recent F1 weekends in Britain, Germany, Hungary and Belgium....