Hamilton’s title hopes hurt by speed of rivals Red Bull

Lewis Hamilton cut a downbeat figure with his title hopes looking increasingly slim after a difficult day in Korea.

Hamilton topped the opening practice session at the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam, but could only manage the eighth-fastest time in the afternoon running, team-mate Jenson Button was fourth.

Hamilton’s best lap was nearly nine-tenths of a second slower than the pacesetting Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.

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The Mercedes-bound McLaren driver is 42 points adrift of championship leader Fernando Alonso, and 38 behind second-placed Vettel.

With Red Bull again looking like the car to beat after their domination in Japan, Hamilton is already on the back foot.

And he was pessimistic when asked if he felt he could compete with Vettel and Webber, particularly in qualifying.

“I am not sure, the Red Bulls seem pretty quick, but we will keep pushing,” he said.

“Jenson was not that far off the pace today and if we get the set-up right and the fuel loads right and everything then maybe we can be competitive.

“I was just struggling a bit with set-up today. The first session was fine but for the second one we made some set-up changes and I wasn’t able to get a time out of the option tyre, but we will make changes tonight and find out (what went wrong).

“In general in the second session the option and the prime tyre were both a disaster for me.”

The 27-year-old appeared to be at a loss to explain his lack of pace, as well as his ability in making the super-soft tyres last over a longer run.

“It was such a big difference from the first session to the second session and I only made a small change on the rear ride-height so I don’t understand it yet,” he said.

“We tried some different things and I was not able to get a good time out of the option or the prime, and on the option I went slower.

“The first session was pretty good and we barely changed anything so I have to figure out what was going on.”

Team-mate Button was by far the more content of the McLaren drivers, but is also concerned by the one-lap speed of Red Bull.

He said: “This afternoon on low fuel and high fuel we have made good progress, we are still not quick enough but we are going in the right direction.

“They (Red Bull) have four tenths advantage again in practice and I think they are going to be very difficult to beat in qualifying, they seem to have that strength back.

“Our race pace today seemed to be competitive but over one lap we are still lacking, but I think the adjustments we have made are positive and there is more to come.

“At the moment it does not look like we are as quick as the Red Bulls, but it’s only practice. Our race pace feels good and, forgetting about the lap times, our consistency feels good.

“We still have a lot of work to do to fight with the Red Bulls but I think we are going in the right direction.”

Michael Schumacher yesterday suffered the ignominy of being reprimanded by the stewards for impeding the two HRTs during second practice for the Korean Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion, who will retire from the sport for a second time at the end of the season, was adjudged to have held up Pedro de la Rosa at turn three 48 minutes into the session, before again getting in the way of the Spaniard and his team-mate Narain Karthikeyan further round the lap.

It is the latest punishment dished out to Schumacher this year.

He was denied pole position in Monaco as he had to serve a five-place grid penalty for taking Bruno Senna out of the Spanish Grand Prix, and a similar incident with Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore earned him a 10-place penalty for last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.

This reprimand will cause particular embarrassment to the German and his team as HRT have consistently been the slowest team in F1 since their arrival in Formula 1 at the start of 2010.

Marussia’s Charles Pic will take a 10-place grid penalty at this weekend’s Korean Grand Prix after exceeding his engine allocation for the season.

Under current regulations each driver is only allowed to use eight engines over the course of a season.

The Frenchman had already used his full allocation, so the team’s decision to fit his car with a new Cosworth powerplant ahead of Saturday’s qualifying means he must serve a penalty.

In reality the punishment will make little difference to Pic’s weekend as his best qualifying of the season to date was 19th on the 24-car grid in Bahrain.

Team principal John Booth, whose team were launched as Virgin Racing from his Dinnington garage in Rotherham three years ago, said: “We plan to fit a new engine to Charles’ car this evening in the knowledge that, as his ninth engine of the season, we will incur a 10-place grid penalty on Sunday.”