Free practice on Friday ahead of Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix showed that, once again, the McLarens remain the team to beat. But the Mercedes looks quick too and the Red Bulls’ long run pace hints at the threat they could pose on Sunday, as long as they don’t give up too much ground in qualifying.
And after Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton’s opening round battle in Melbourne, we are set for another one here. In Melbourne Button set up his car with more wing than Hamilton’s to take care of the tyres in the race, while Hamilton took the pole. Here Hamilton will have to be on his guard for whatever plan his team mate is concocting about the best way to tackle this race. It looks like a three stop race, but the two tyre compounds are so close together in performance, there are a number of ways of doing the race strategy.
Lewis Hamilton topped the time sheets in both sessions, his time in FP1 a tenth faster than in FP2, with team mate Jenson Button also up at the sharp end, along with the Mercedes drivers.
Mercedes could challenge McLaren for pole, it seems, thanks to the gain from the passive F Duct and DRS system they have, but their tyre wear again looks more severe than McLarens with the result that their long run times are not as competitive as McLarens’ or Red Bull’s.
In overview, this track demands a car with lots of downforce, there’s less for the driver to do to make a difference than in Melbourne. Also the car has to be well balanced as the track causes significant degradation to the tyres. The afternoon was a session where many drivers were clearly unhappy with the balance of their cars, as we saw a far greater number of drivers coming in and out of the pits than usual for a Friday. Normally we see longer runs. We also saw drivers making use of the new rules which permit teams to use some of their Saturday tyre allocation on Friday. Most drivers used three sets of tyres, although McLaren used four.
Red Bull were pushing hard today, doing a great deal of work in the pits by their standards. Webber was 7th and Vettel 10th, complaining at one point about the balance of the car, calling it hard to drive.
Kimi Raikkonen’s chances of qualifying strongly were hit when he required a gearbox change at the end of the day, so he will take a five place grid penalty.
The Toro Rossos were impressive today, Ricciardo doing competitive times throughout the afternoon and managing to do long runs on both types of tyre. Team Mate Vergne was 8th. They will be worth watching this weekend. Ricciardo scored points in Australia and the pair of them to score more here.
Ferrari were also working very hard; they did back to back tests on a new front wing on Alonso’s car, the two time world champion ending the session 6th having tried two sets of hard tyres and one of mediums. Team mate Massa meanwhile ended up 16th, 1.3 seconds behind Alonso having used only the medium tyre in the afternoon session.
Kamui Kobayashi lost most of the session to a gearbox issue, but managed to get out with 15 minutes remaining.
Heikki Kovalainen also lost time with a hydraulics problem.
MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX, Sepang
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m38.172 28
2. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m38.533s + 0.361 34
3. Jenson Button McLaren 1m38.535s + 0.363 29
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m38.696s + 0.524 34
5. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m38.853s + 0.681 33
6. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m38.891s + 0.719 27
7. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m39.133s + 0.961 29
8. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m39.297s + 1.125 33
9. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m39.311s + 1.139 22
10. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m39.402s + 1.230 25
11. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m39.444s + 1.272 35
12. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1m39.464s + 1.292 26
13. Paul di Resta Force India 1m39.625s + 1.453 20
14. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m39.687s + 1.515 16
15. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m39.696s + 1.524 29
16. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m40.271s + 2.099 27
17. Bruno Senna Williams 1m40.678s + 2.506 34
18. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m40.947s + 2.775 33
19. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1m41.464s + 3.292 25
20. Timo Glock Marussia 1m41.681s + 3.509 20
21. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1m42.594s + 4.422 18
22. Charles Pic Marussia 1m42.874s + 4.702 24
23. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m43.658s + 5.486 18
24. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1m43.283s + 5.561 22