The closing round of A1 Grand Prix's inaugural season got underway with 22 cars taking to the impressive Shanghai International Circuit for two free practice sessions but, despite the unfamiliar surroundings, it was a familiar name at the top of the charts.

Fastest man on the day was Team France's Nicolas Lapierre, who will split the weekend's driving with team-mate Alex Premat as reward for helping the DAMS-run team to title success. Lapierre was only third quickest in the opening session, trailing the man who beat him at Laguna Seca last time out, Salvador Duran of Mexico, and Malaysia's Alex Yoong, who got off to a flying start. However, with the track a little more embedded in his mind, the GP2 regular raised his game after the break and normal service was resumed with the tricolour car out front.

"It's a very difficult track for the driver and for the car, so we had to work a lot today," Lapierre admitted, "However, at the end of the day, we had a good time. We put in a good distance and we have to wait and see tomorrow what Alex can do.

"The track was not easy at the beginning, as there are a lot of corners and it's a very technical track, but now I really like it because I think we will see a good race on Sunday."

Also usurping Duran in the second, and quicker, session was Team Great Britain, which will be defending its current third position in the standings, but having opted for a new driver in the shape of Darren Manning this weekend. Unable to test the A1 Lola before arriving in China, the former Champ Car and IRL frontrunner bedded himself in with seventh spot in the first session, before vaulting up the order to be just a tenth of a second shy of Lapierre at the end of the day.

"Obviously, the day's gone very well," Manning noted, "It's my first time in the car and first time on the track, but it helped me being on a totally new circuit as the other drivers were learning their way around as I was also learning how to drive the car. It's nice to be in the press conference after my first time out, and I hope I can keep it up for the rest of the weekend."

Team GB has yet to clinch victory in the A1GP series, despite the best efforts of World Series-bound Robbie Kerr, but Manning believes that there is no reason why he can't succeed on a circuit he has enjoyed so far.

"It's my first experience of this amazing circuit, and it's got everything you could want as a driver," he enthused, "It's got some slow technical corners and some very high speed corners. It's going to be very good for the racing and it's going to be very physical. Because the track doesn't get used very much, conditions just keep getting better and better, so it's going to be interesting stuff."

Winner of the last race at Laguna Seca, Duran was immediately on the pace in China, recording the fastest lap of the first session by a couple of tenths, before then struggling for performance early in part two.

"It was a difficult day," the Mexican said, "In the morning, we were very fast in the beginning but, in the afternoon, we made a big change to the car, which was difficult. But we worked on the set-up and, luckily, had enough time to put in a decent time at the end of the session. I'm very happy now as we now have a competitive car
for tomorrow."

Yoong and Malaysia dropped to fifth place in the second session, but remain firmly in the hunt for a decent grid slot on Saturday, as do Australia, Canada and Ireland, the latter having put young Michael Devaney back in the seat after Ralph Firman found himself otherwise engaged. Fourth in session one, Devaney slipped back to sixth if the later outing, but remains a threat.

The surprise of the day came in session two, when the home team, with Tengyi Jiang at the wheel, claimed eighth fastest time, vaulting from 20th after session one, when Qinghua Ma drove, and pushing fancied runners such as South Africa, New Zealand and the Netherlands back down the order. There was less of a surprise to see Team Germany rooted to the foot of the times in both sessions, as newcomer Sebastian Stahl got used to the A1 car on his first visit to the series. The sometime saloon racer was almost two seconds off the pace of next slowest man, Christian Fittipaldi.

 

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