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Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber was 0.129 seconds adrift of Hamilton. Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher was third fastest, nearly two weeks after coming in third at the European GP for his first podium finish since returning to racing.

Alonso was one of three drivers who failed to set a time in the morning when spray hampered visibility. He was 10th fastest in the second session, while two-time defending series champion Sebastian Vettel was 13th.

“If there’s too much standing water on track we can’t go out, as we aquaplane pretty quickly,” Vettel said. “Senna went off, and it shows how quickly it can happen … I think weather will be the most important factor in determining the rest of the weekend.”

Silverstone’s management described the conditions as a “nightmare” as fields used for parking and camping were flooded, leaving thousands unable to make it to the circuit in the worst chaos at the event for 12 years.

F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone was told by organizers not to attempt to travel to Silverstone on Friday.

There was a line five miles along the main road leading to Silverstone by Friday lunchtime and the situation could be exacerbated at the weekend with further rain anticipated.

Organizers, who had anticipated 100,000 watching Saturday’s qualifying session, have told up to 20,000 ticketholders who planned to park at the circuit not to come.

Silverstone managing director Richard Phillips said the need to refund so many people could cost $1.5 million and turn the event from profit into loss.

“I’m a bit sick today,” Phillips said.

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Rob Harris can be reached at www.twitter.com/RobHarris