By Abhishek Takle
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The Shanghai weather all but wiped out the first two practice sessions for the Chinese Formula One 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.
Foggier conditions in the city meant the medical helicopter would have been unable to land at the designated hospital, 38km from the circuit, a spokesperson from the sport's governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) said.
Track action has to be halted if the medical helicopter cannot fly or if an ambulance cannot reach the designated hospital within 20 minutes, according to FIA safety procedures.
Only 14 drivers completed timed laps, with neither championship favorite Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes nor Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, winner of last month's season-opening race in Australia, setting times.
"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," triple world champion Hamilton told reporters.
"We need to work together with the FIA and (commercial rights holder) FOM 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 one minute, 50.491 seconds in damp and drizzly conditions remained the fastest time of the day.
The Dutchman's lap was more than 15 seconds slower than retired world champion Nico Rosberg's pole position effort last year, 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," the German said. "I think the forecast for tomorrow 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.
The Briton, the most successful driver in China with four wins, is hoping to strike back at a resurgent Ferrari on Sunday.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)