BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel set an impressive pace as Red Bull dominated practice for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Friday with Pirelli’s new tires looking very much to their liking.
The German, fresh from victory in his home race at the Nuerburgring three weeks ago, was quickest in both sessions ahead of Australian team mate Mark Webber with a best lap in the afternoon of one minute 21.264 seconds.
If he had done that in qualifying last year at the slow Hungaroring circuit, the 26-year-old championship leader would have been on the front row of the grid.
“The car feels okay but there’s always a lot of work to do and there’s some room for improvement,” he said. “I don’t think the tires feel massively different but they are a step in the right direction.”
Vettel’s morning time of 1:22.723 was already a warning sign on a hot and cloudless morning with air temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and track temperatures a sizzling 44.
Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen - who could be Vettel’s team mate next year - was third fastest in the first session with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso fourth on the timesheets.
The top five drivers were separated by less than three-tenths of a second in the afternoon when Raikkonen’s French team mate Romain Grosjean was third quickest to underscore Lotus’s potential.
Alonso, Vettel’s closest title rival with 34 points to make up after nine of the 19 races, was again fourth.
Vettel has never won in Hungary, one of only two circuits on the current calendar that has yet to see him on top of the podium, but has broken new ground this season and is chasing his fifth win in 10 races.
Mercedes, who have been the form team in qualifying with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, focused on getting to grips with the new type of tyre after being forced to miss a test at Silverstone last week.
That was a punishment for a ‘secret’ test with Pirelli in Spain in May.
Since then, Pirelli have faced a wave of negative headlines after a spate of blowouts at last month’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone led them to change the tires to last year’s construction with 2013 compounds.
Rosberg was eighth and seventh respectively while Hamilton - three times triumphant in Hungary for McLaren and last year’s winner from pole - was 13th and sixth.
“It was an interesting day as we were running the new tires for the first time. It took us a while to find a good balance with the car but our long runs looked respectable this afternoon,” said principal Ross Brawn.
McLaren, without a win this season, looked in better shape at a circuit that has brought them six wins in the last eight seasons.
Jenson Button, twice a winner in Hungary, was sixth fastest in the morning while Mexican team mate Sergio Perez clocked the ninth best time.
“I’m hoping we’ve taken a step forward but there’s still room for improvement,” said Button.
Germany’s Adrian Sutil, preparing for his 100th race for Force India, was seventh and 10th.
At the back, Venezuelan reserve driver Rodolfo Gonzalez replaced Britain’s Max Chilton for the opening session with Marussia and was comfortably slowest.
Editing by Clare Fallon and Pritha Sarkar