Michael Schumacher sets fastest time in practice at Chinese Grand Prix

• Schumacher sets pace with Lewis Hamilton 0.177s slower
• First practice session affected by persistent drizzle

The seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher set the fastest time on the opening day of practice ahead of Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix, the Mercedes driver lapping the Shanghai International Circuit in 1m 35.973s.

The German set his time in the second of the two sessions, the first having been affected by persistent drizzle – a possible portent of conditions for Sunday. Schumacher and his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, have been cleared to continue using a controversial rear wing, which some rivals felt infringed the regulations, after a formal protest from the Lotus team was rejected by FIA stewards on Thursday evening.

Last year’s winner, Lewis Hamilton, was second fastest for McLaren, just 0.177s slower than Schumacher. The Englishman has taken pole position for the opening two races of the campaign, but if he is fastest again in qualifying he will line up only sixth, having been handed a five-position grid penalty in the wake of an unscheduled gearbox swap.

The Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were third and fourth respectively, ahead of Rosberg and Jenson Button in the second McLaren.

If the race proceeds without climatic interruption of the kind that turned the Malaysian Grand Prix on its head three weeks ago, Red Bull and McLaren are expected to resume their duel at the head of the field. So far this season the Mercedes drivers have been fleet of foot over a single lap, but have struggled to maintain that pace in race time because their car has a greater appetite for tyres than most.

Kamui Kobayashi was seventh for Sauber, just ahead of Paul di Resta. The Scot did not run during the morning after handing his car to the Force India reserve, Jules Bianchi, the highly-rated Frenchman who forms part of Ferrari’s young driver development programme. In the second session, Di Resta escaped without damage after spinning at the final corner and recovered to set a time within one second of Schumacher.

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MotoGP sets 18-round world championship calendar for 2012

• Silverstone to host British round on 17 June
• Four races in Spain, two in US

The MotoGP world championship will start under floodlights in Qatar once again next year and end at Spain’s Valencia circuit, the series organisers said on Wednesday.

The governing International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) issued a provisional 18-round calendar with no new additions and four Spanish races.

The United States has two races, now separated by three weeks, at Laguna Seca in California and Indianapolis.

Provisional 2012 calendar

15 April* Qatar

29 April Spain (Jerez)

6 May Portugal (Estoril)

20 May France (Le Mans)

3 June Catalunya (Barcelona)

17 June Britain (Silverstone)

30 June** Netherlands (Assen)

8 July Germany (venue to be confirmed)

15 July Italy (Mugello)

29 July*** US (Laguna Seca)

19 Aug Indianapolis

26 Aug Czech Republic (Brno)

16 Sept San Marino (Misano)

30 Sept Aragón (Motorland Aragón, Spain)

14 Oct Japan (Motegi)

21 Oct Malaysia (Sepang)

28 Oct Australia (Phillip Island)

11 Nov Valencia (Ricardo Tormo)

* Evening race

** Saturday race

*** MotoGP only, no other classes

Spain (Jerez), Portugal and Germany are all subject to contract.

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Mark Webber sets fastest time in Belgian Grand Prix practice

• Australian sets the pace at rain-hit Spa-Francorchamps
• Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton third and fourth

Mark Webber took the honours in another rain-hit practice session for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

In the initial 90 minutes only the Mercedes pair of Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg were able to set times before the capricious nature of the region’s weather took hold.

The afternoon was a different story as the field enjoyed 55 minutes of relatively dry running at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit prior to the heavens opening again.

Although it eased off and a number of cars returned to the track, the majority settled for their dry times which were never going to be troubled.

Come the conclusion, Webber sat at the top of the timesheet with a lap of 1min 50.321sec, 0.140sec clear of the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso.

Such times, however, were over four seconds off Webber’s pole lap of last year, clearly indicating all the top teams have more in their locker.

The McLaren pair of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were half a second adrift in third and fourth, both Britons managing only nine laps.

Hamilton left it fashionably late before making his entrance, with his best time set on his only lap on the faster soft tyres moments before the rain came down.

Further adrift but still within a second of Webber were Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Rosberg before a gap of almost 0.4sec to Sauber’s Sergio Perez.

Behind the Mexican were the Force India pair of Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta, the former in the car to the annoyance of Adrian Sutil. Ordinarily reserve drivers take part in first practice, however, on this occasion Force India opted to reverse the order, leaving Sutil on the sidelines in the afternoon.

That meant the German missed the only true dry running of the day to which he said: “It is not good for the performance to not be in the car. It’s a bit disappointing what the team has done because it’s not good for the success. It was the only dry session we had and I missed it.”

The reigning world champion and current championship leader Sebastian Vettel was forced to settle for 10th spot, 1.469sec behind Webber, with Schumacher 11th.

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