Lewis Hamilton ensured that he held the upper hand after the opening day of what could be a weekend crucial to his hopes of landing a first F1 world title by topping both free practice sessions at the Shanghai International Circuit.
Having set the pace with a 1min 35.630secs effort in the first of two 90-minute sessions, the Briton again went fastest in the afternoon, even if he was unable to better his previous best. His margin in the later session was also diminished, but Hamilton still had nearly three tenths in his pocket by the time the chequered flag on proceedings.
The McLaren driver, with last year's Chinese Grand Prix faux pas
brought back into focus by the media in the build-up to the weekend, holds a reduced five-point lead over Felipe Massa in the championship standings, but appeared to have the Brazilian under control in practice for the 2008 event, leading him by 0.390secs in the morning session and then all but maintaining his pace while Ferrari followed its own programme and dropped the Brazilian a further four tenths from Hamilton after lunch.
The Briton clocked 1min 35.750secs in the afternoon session to lead Fernando Alonso, winner of the two most recent races in Singapore and Japan, by 0.274secs. While Hamilton again enjoyed lengthy periods in P1, Alonso and Renault team-mate Nelson Piquet Jr fought to be best of the rest into the closing moments, with the double world champion eventually coming out on top by just 0.07secs.
Jarno Trulli, having languished in 18th spot after the morning session, transformed his day with a lap of 1min 36.159secs that proved good enough for fourth fastest in the afternoon and seventh overall when the earlier efforts of Massa, Kimi Raikkonen and Heikki Kovalainen were all taken into account.
The two Ferrari drivers ended the afternoon eighth and sixth respectively, but their morning's work had been quick enough to ensure that both remained in the top four overall, with Alonso's PM effort splitting them on the combined charts.
Mark Webber moved into the top ten in the afternoon, heading Massa, the apparently consistent Sebastien Bourdais, Raikkonen, Nick Heidfeld and Nico Rosberg in the upper half of the timesheet, while the likes of Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel fell away as their teams focused on other issues. Kovalainen, meanwhile, ended the later session down in 13th spot.
Bourdais, however, could potentially have done better than his eventual seventh in session, having prematurely beached his Toro Rosso in the gravel and missed some valuable running time. The Frenchman was not alone in being caught out by the 'green' surface, however, with such luminaries as Kubica, Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton and Raikkonen all spinning or taking to the expansive areas of tarmac surrounding the circuit.