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Motorsport | Formula 1

Michael Schumacher © Gallo Images

Schumacher puts Mercedes on top in China



Michael Schumacher returned to the scene of his 91st and last Formula One victory on Friday to set the fastest lap for Mercedes in Chinese Grand Prix practice.

The 43-year-old seven times world champion, whose last win was with Ferrari in Shanghai in 2006, lapped the monumental circuit with a best time of one minute 35.973 seconds after McLaren's Lewis Hamilton laid down a marker in the morning.

Hamilton, who will have a five-place grid penalty for Sunday's race due to an unscheduled gearbox change that has wrecked his hopes of a third pole position in a row, was second fastest after lunch.

"It was a trouble-free day, and I am quite happy with how our car is handling so far here," said Schumacher.

"As a team, we are a lot stronger in certain areas this season, and we have a much better base to work from, although we are not quite where we want to be with this car yet but I am confident we will get there."

Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, last year's winner and the only driver to have triumphed twice in Shanghai, completed only seven laps in the morning but topped the timing screens in 1:37.106.

With a damp start to the session after overnight rain, the Briton was happy to save his tyres in the knowledge that he will need every strategic advantage on Sunday if he is to celebrate a first win of the season.

"The longer runs look competitive," he said. "I'm focusing a little bit more on the race than qualifying compared to the other races and we are improving consistency and the way we look after the tyres.

"The car is looking very good. We have a few improvements to make to the balance but hopefully we will be there or thereabouts."

LOTUS PROTEST

Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and Schumacher, whose team saw off a protest by rivals Lotus on Thursday over their controversial rear wing, were second and third quickest respectively in the first session.

Mexican Sergio Perez, who took his Sauber to a stunning second place in Malaysia last month, was fourth in the morning ahead of Japanese teammate Kamui Kobayashi but the usual suspects pushed them back in the afternoon.

Red Bull's double champion Sebastian Vettel ended the day third fastest with Australian teammate Mark Webber fourth.

Ferrari seemed mired in problems again, with championship leader Fernando Alonso lapping 11th and 10th fastest in the two sessions. Brazilian teammate Felipe Massa was 17th in the afternoon.

Alonso, who tested some updates, said it was a "normal Friday" but Massa was clearly frustrated.

"You definitely couldn't define today as being fantastic," he said.

Vettel, who has yet to win this season or qualify on the front row after dominating 2011, was using a different exhaust set-up to Webber.

"It is tight between the cars. I haven't seen everything, but I think overall we can be quite happy," said Vettel.

"We tried a lot of things today and now we need to go through everything and see what the best set-up is. If you look at the car, you can see a big difference compared to the set-up we used for Malaysia, but driving it's hard to say.

"I felt more comfortable, but we'll see. It's tricky to say if we look competitive. McLaren look good in all conditions."

Force India's French reserve Jules Bianchi made his practice debut, replacing Britain's Paul Di Resta for the first session.

Other less familiar Friday names included Finnish reserve Valtteri Bottas for Williams and Dutch driver Giedo van der Garde for Caterham.

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