Mad dogs and Englishman steal limelight in India

By Alan Baldwin

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - McLaren's Lewis Hamilton set the practice pace in a hazy first session at India's new Buddh International Formula One circuit Friday on a morning of stray dogs, quick Red Bulls and fierce national pride.

On a historic day for motorsport in the world's second most populous nation, the $450 million facility fired up the country's long-awaited first grand prix weekend with the colors of the national flag leading the way.

The first car out of the pitlane was the saffron, white and green Force India, driven by Germany's Adrian Sutil.

It was followed closely by Team Lotus's Indian reserve Karun Chandhok, the second Force India of Paul di Resta and then Indian racer Narain Karthikeyan in the HRT.

Chandhok, who will not race Sunday, had the honor of setting the first timed lap.

"It's an emotional moment for all of us," Force India team principal Vijay Mallya told reporters.

"There was a lot of speculation about whether the track would be ready and the event has had its fair share of controversy after what happened with the Commonwealth Games, but we're ready. It's a great track and the drivers love it."

A large black stray dog appeared on the main pit straight, one of the longest in the sport, shortly before the session was due to start.

Another appeared minutes into the session, causing it to be red-flagged for safety reasons for five minutes while the offending canine was rounded up.

Hamilton set his fastest lap of one minute 26.836 seconds right at the end of the session to deny the Red Bull pairing of double champion Sebastian Vettel and Australian Mark Webber an immediate one-two on the timesheets.

Vettel was 0.580 slower, with Webber 0.592 off the pace. McLaren's Jenson Button was fourth fastest.

Hamilton, sporting a helmet with the image of the late reggae singer Bob Marley on top, looked clearly determined to deny Vettel an 11th win of the season although there was some confusion afterwards about whether he had set his best lap when yellow warning flags were being waved.

Ferrari's Fernando Alonso had to sit out the last half hour after his car's engine failed.

The Spaniard parked up, hopped out and sat under a big screen where he could watch replays of his stricken car coming to a halt.

Williams' Pastor Maldonado also had engine problems, pulling over with a cloud of smoke erupting from the back of the car before a marshal extinguished any flames.

Many of the drivers's cars and helmets carried the logos and numbers of British racer Dan Wheldon and Italian MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who both died in accidents since the previous Korean Grand Prix.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by John O'Brien)