Hamilton gets back on track

Englishman is seventh in practice as pit crew's hard work save the day after crash forces him out in the first session.

HOCKENHEIM, Germany // Lewis Hamilton paid the price for his smash in the first practice as he sat out almost the entire second session ahead of tomorrow's German Grand Prix. But with only 12 minutes of track time at Hockenheim, Hamilton still produced a credible performance. The championship leader managed to post the seventh-quickest time, finishing 0.739 seconds behind Fernando Alonso as Ferrari and Red Bull-Renault accounted for the top four places.

Hamilton and the McLaren team lost 78 minutes of track time after his car rammed into a tyre wall during the opening 90-minute session. His mechanics spent four hours repairing the car, allowing him to get back on track late in the second session. Heavy rain had fallen for four hours in the morning, and the track had pools of standing water that caused trouble for several drivers, most notably Hamilton.

After finally setting his first timed lap almost 65 minutes in, his programme for the morning was brought to a halt soon after. Hamilton did nothing more than put a wheel on a damp part of the circuit that at that time was beginning to show a drier line in places. That immediately led to his McLaren getting out of shape, sending Hamilton sliding across the wet grass. And with no traction, he ploughed nose-first into a barrier.

The impact, although not severe, was enough to send him spinning around, resulting in a second collision with the tyres that damaged his left-rear wheel. The McLaren crew then performed wonders to get him back out on track with a few minutes to spare in what was a predominantly dry second session. On only his second timed lap, Hamilton's pace was enough to put him within 0.069secs of teammate Jenson Button, who was 14th at the time.

Hamilton eventually finished with a lap of 1min 17.004secs, seven-tenths of a second faster than Button, who completed 36 laps but managed only the 15th-fastest lap. "It felt good to get back in, at least I've got something to work on," Hamilton said. "The accident took all four corners off the car, so I was a little bit upset with myself. The guys work so hard during the week to get the car ready, and then you get to the track, do a few laps, and total the car, which isn't great."

Hamilton's time will at least be encouraging to McLaren, who were again testing the performance-enhancing exhaust-blown diffuser that was ditched after Friday practice at the British Grand Prix two weeks ago. Alonso led the field yesterday with a lap of 1min 16.265secs, just 0.029secs ahead of home hero Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull. "The conditions were not easy today," Vettel said. "They were quite changeable, which made judging lap times difficult, but we got some dry running in the afternoon, which was important.

"I think it's looking quite good and the car feels good, especially in the last section. Ferrari looked extremely competitive. McLaren had a difficult day with only one car for the majority of running, but they will come back and be up there." Alonso had the fastest lap despite an engine change at the start of the second session. Alonso's teammate, Felipe Massa, had the third-fastest time. * AP