Brawn flexes muscle; Ferrari struggles

Updated: April 17, 2009, 10:41 AM ET news services

SHANGHAI -- Jenson Button made the best possible start to his quest for a third successive Formula One victory by setting the quickest lap time in Friday's two practice sessions for the Chinese Grand Prix.

The Briton, who won the first two races of the season from pole position, again showed the pace of his Brawn GP car with a storming lap of 1 minute, 35.679 seconds late in the second session.

"We've improved a car a lot over the day, but there's still a bit more work to do until I'm completely happy," said the 29-year-old, who leads the championship by five points over teammate Rubens Barrichello.

"There seemed to be a lot of traffic on the track today so my main concern was finding some clear air."

German Nico Rosberg also left it late before posting a time of 1:35.704 for Williams to edge Brazilian Barrichello (1:35.881) and deny Brawn GP the top two times of the day.

"The major thing for us at the moment is that this season we have consistency from one track to another," said Rosberg, who has looked quick in practice but had disappointing race results so far this season.

"We're now going to a race and not getting any big surprises as we seem to have learned from our mistakes from last year."

The Brawns were expected to dominate the weekend after their rear diffuser was declared legal on Wednesday but the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel -- fourth and fifth quickest -- showed it was possible to go fast without one.

"We had perfect driving conditions today so we'll see how we go tomorrow. I enjoyed it out there," Australian Webber said.

World champion Lewis Hamilton had put his McLaren team's troubles behind him by setting the quickest time in first practice but faded in the second session.

The 24-year-old Briton, whose title defense has been marred by struggles on the track and controversy off it, finished 13th fastest in the quicker afternoon session at the track where he claimed his last win in the penultimate race of the 2008 season.

"The team have worked very hard but we've still got a long way to go," he said.

After another poor showing Friday, Ferrari acknowledged it faces a difficult task in catching up to the leaders.

The team is pointless after two races and looks unlikely to score any points in China after Friday's practice session ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday. Felipe Massa was only 12th fastest and teammate Kimi Raikkonen was 14th, reflecting how far off the pace the sport's perennial power team has fallen.

After dropping the problematic KERS power-boost system for the third race of the season, and still without a two-tiered diffuser to match those used by pacesetters Brawn, Toyota and Williams, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali acknowledged Friday's mediocre results were not surprising.

"We will have to run a few races on the defensive and try to do the best we can," Domenicali said. "We are in a difficult situation and we must try and stay calm and work hard on all fronts."

After sliding down the timesheets Friday, Massa said the team had no choice but to work hard to catch up.

"I can say our fight for the championship is ever more compromised," Massa said.

"We are losing even more performance, in addition to not having as much aerodynamic downforce as the best cars."

Raikkonen came off the track in both sessions, one of several drivers struggling with grip as teams weighed their tire choices for the weekend.

"The point is we are too slow compared to the teams currently at the top of the order," the Finnish 2007 world champion said.

"We must try and improve the car, at the moment we are not able to fight for the title."

A third practice session takes place before qualifying on Saturday.

"Obviously we want to be on pole," Button said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.