Shanghai, China – Bad weather all but wiped out the first two practice sessions for the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday with poor visibility in the city forcing the grounding of the medical support helicopter. Drivers were only able to run for 22 of the scheduled 90 minute opening session while second practice was wiped out altogether.
Visibility at the track, on the outskirts of Shanghai, was good enough for helicopters to fly, with television choppers hovering overhead throughout the day, but a spokesman for the sport's governing International Automobile Federation said foggier conditions in the city meant the medical helicopter would have been unable to land at the designated hospital, 38km from the circuit.
FIA safety procedures say that track action has to be halted if the medical helicopter cannot fly or if an ambulance cannot reach the designated hospital within 20 minutes.
Only 14 drivers completed timed laps, with neither championship favourite Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes nor Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, winner of the 26 March season-opening race in Australia, setting times.
Triple world champion Hamilton told reporters: "It's not good for the fans watching on TV and even worse for all those people in the stands, who have paid money to come out here from the city or even from other countries.
"We need to work together with the FIA and Formula One Management to find a solution or an alternative plan of some kind when we have circumstances like this in the future."
Teenager Max Verstappen's opening session-topping effort of 1m50.491s in damp and drizzly conditions remained the fastest time of the day – but his time was more than 15 seconds slower than retired world champion Nico Rosberg's pole position effort in 2016, an indication of the limited benefit of the curtailed session.
Hamilton and Vettel are expected to battle for victory on Sunday but will only have a final hour-long practice session ahead of qualifying on Saturday to prepare for what is predicted to be a wet race.
Hamilton, who has yet to drive on the new rain tyres introduced this year, expressed apprehension about racing in the rain, while Vettel goes into the weekend feeling more relaxed.
"Pretty comfortable for this Grand Prix, I hope still, despite the weather," Vettel said. "I think the forecast for Saturday is quite good so we get a lot more running."
With action curtailed, fans who braved the cool temperatures and inclement weather found other ways to amuse themselves. A fan dressed as the main villain from the "Star Wars" movie series was given a fair amount of television exposure, with producers even running the caption "Darth Vader, Sith Lord" to accompany the images.
Hamilton crossed the track to the grandstands to wave at his cheering fans before throwing signed merchandise up to them. He's the most successful driver in China with four wins and is hoping to strike back at a resurgent Ferrari on Sunday.
Shanghai Grand Prix practice results:
1 Max Verstappen (Netherlands) Red Bull – 1m50.491
2. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams – 1:52.086
3 Lance Stroll (Canada) Williams – 1:52.507
4 Carlos Sainz Jr (Spain) Toro Rosso – 1:52.840
5 Romain Grosjean (France) Haas – 1:53.039
6 Daniil Kvyat (Russia) Toro Rosso – 1:53.314
7 Fernando Alonso (Spain) McLaren – 1:53.520
8 Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull – 1:54.038
9 Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Mercedes 1:54.664
10 Kevin Magnussen (Denmark) Haas – 1:55.104
11 Nico Hulkenberg (Germany) Renault -1:55.608
12 Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium) McLaren – 1:57.445
13 Marcus Ericsson (Sweden) Sauber – 2:15.138
14 Antonio Giovinazzi (Italy) Sauber – 2:15.281