It’s always difficult to interpret lap times from free practise. Only the teams know what fuel loads are in the cars, what the drivers are doing and why, and what the engineers are working on, so the order on Friday can mean nothing at all.
In Brazil, the Friday times mean even less. The track is very short, so the cars will appear closer together than they are in reality. There is also always the possibility of rain, which has the potential to upset the order. Rain is predicted on Saturday and Sunday.
Judging from the Friday times, McLaren and Red Bull seem to have the edge on everyone else. Ferrari are a little off the pace, and Mercedes appear to be reasonably close to Ferrari.
The track is an interesting one for set-up work. The first and third sectors are very fast, with quite a tight, twisty middle sector. The middle sector is generally not conducive to overtaking. The major overtaking places on the track are at the end of the start/finish straight into turn 1, and at the end of the next straight into turn 4.
The Mercedes pair of Rosberg and Schumacher were quickest in the third sector in FP2. This suggests that they are running a set-up that is more in favour of top speed than cornering speed. If either Schumacher or Rosberg were to get among the front-runners at the start, they would be very difficult to pass with such a set-up. This is a set-up that Schumacher has used very effectively earlier in the season, at Monza in particular.
Another team to watch for a similar strategy is Force India. They have historically been strong at high-speed tracks such as Spa and Monza, so expect them to be competitive in Sectors 1 and 3.
The back of the field will also be interesting to watch. Team Lotus have a new rear wing, which is designed for more efficient DRS. This should help them significantly in qualifying, where they can use DRS as much as they like. The practice times suggest that they have quite a margin over Virgin and HRT (about 1.7 seconds), and that they are reasonably close to the mid-field (about 0.6s slower than the fastest Williams). They could possibly make it into Q3 this afternoon.
It’s shaping up for a very interesting qualifying session. The close times at the front, improvements at the back, and possibility of rain all promise to yield some surprises.