MONZA, Italy (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton shut out the swirl of paddock speculation about his Formula One future and focused on lapping fastest in practice for the Italian Grand Prix on Friday.
The 27-year-old Briton led a McLaren one-two at the top of the timesheets with a best lap of one minute 25.290 seconds in brilliant sunshine while Jenson Button, winner in Belgium last weekend, was 0.038 slower.
Hamilton has been the main talking point of the weekend with the rumor mill suggesting he could leave McLaren, who have won the last two races, to switch to Mercedes in place of Michael Schumacher.
“Of course every now and then it pops into your mind but then you have to remember you have to keep your eye on the ball, and that’s the most important thing at the moment,” said the 2008 champion, sounding relaxed.
”I‘m just trying to focus on the weekend. Everyone is asking the question, but I‘m just trying to remain focused on the job at hand at the moment.
“It’s a beautiful circuit, really absolutely stunning to drive. Obviously great weather and incredibly high speed and when you get the flow right it’s just such a great feeling.”
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the championship leader, was third but the afternoon ended with worried faces after the Spaniard slowed on track and cruised back to the pitlane with an apparent gearbox problem.
The team quickly calmed fears of a grid penalty for a gearbox change, saying Alonso was using an old one under Friday regulations.
Alonso had also slowed and parked up in the morning session led by former Ferrari favorite Schumacher, hailed by the partisan crowd as one of their all-time idols and showing he still also had plenty of pace in his Mercedes.
With the Monza grandstand festooned with banners hailing both the great German and Alonso in almost equal measure, Schumacher had lapped the fastest circuit on the calendar in 1:25.422.
“Michael we love you” and “Michael, we will always be with you” were among the banners, some in Italian, testifying to the continuing adoration of a driver who won five of his seven championships with Ferrari.
The 43-year-old was slowed in the afternoon with problems with the DRS rear wing system but the gearbox that had given him trouble in Spa ran without incident.
Button, runner-up at Monza for the past three seasons, was also second fastest in that morning session.
“It’s always nice to be back in Monza as I am still so warmly welcomed by all the tifosi,” said Schumacher.
Alonso, who has a 24-point advantage over Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel after 12 of the 20 races, was fourth in the morning.
Vettel was 11th and 13th, with Australian team mate Mark Webber ninth and 11th respectively.
”I think overall we are not as quick as we would like to be, so there’s still work to do,“ said Vettel. ”I think we are more competitive in race trim but we aren’t where we want to be in terms of true pace.
Williams driver Pastor Maldonado, who has a 10-place penalty for Sunday’s final European race of the season, stopped on track with an hydraulic problem in the morning.
Belgian Jerome D‘Ambrosio, who raced for tail-enders Virgin (Marussia) last year, was 15th and 12th fastest respectively on his first day in the Lotus as stand-in for banned Frenchman Romain Grosjean.
Grosjean was suspended for causing a pile-up at the start in Spa that ended the race for Alonso and Hamilton.
Ma Qing Hua tested for HRT as the first Chinese driver to take part in a Formula One Grand Prix weekend, replacing Indian Narain Karthikeyan for the first session. He was slowest of all with a time of 1:31.239.
”It was an extraordinary experience and I‘m happy with my performance,“ he said. ”I accomplished all the targets we set ourselves.
“It was an important step for me but also for motorsport in China since it’s a very young sport there but with a great potential.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Clare Fallon