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Hamilton Quickest in FP2 in Malaysia

Lewis Hamilton during FP2 at Sepang

Lewis Hamilton was quickest in both free practice sessions in Malaysia on Friday.  The young McLaren driver seems bound and determined to sort his car out in qualifying trim, on low fuel, to prevent a repeat of his muddled qualifying attempt last week in Australia, where he failed to make the Q3 round, and had to settle for 11th slot on the grid.

Such was his charge through the field during the race in Melbourne that he might have secured a podium finish, or even a win, had he only qualified better.  But Formula 1 is riddled with such “if onlys,” and, as Michael Schumacher said recently regarding his own comeback performance, “Life is not about wishful thinking. You have to work for it.”

Hamilton voiced satisfaction in his car’s handling at Sepang, saying, “I’ve got a good feeling in the car.  It’s probably the best feeling I’ve had in the car around this circuit.”  Nevertheless, he expressed a cautious optimism regarding the car’s relative performance. “This evening, I want to sit down with my engineers and make a couple of changes,” he said. “We don’t yet know where the others are, so we need to keep focusing on our performance, but we’re optimistic that we’ve made a small step forward.”

As for the rest of the field, as is becoming customary this year under the new refueling ban, it’s difficult to assess relative performance in Friday’s frree practice sessions, as the teams are all running different test programs, with different fuel loads.

For example, both Red Bull and Ferrari, who have been the pace-setting teams thus far (Jenson Button’s win in a McLaren not withstanding), spent most of FP2 working on longer heavy fuel runs.  It was only towards the end of the session that Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel finally jumped up to 2nd on the time sheets.

Even so, Vettel wasn’t entirely satisfied with his performance.  “I wasn’t 100% happy today,” he said. “I think we still need to get a little bit quicker. The McLarens and the Mercedes look quick and Ferrari have a decent long run pace, so we’ll have to see where we are.”

Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber was even more chagrined.  His car came to a halt on the track after 13 laps.  “It was the engine,” he said. “You never want your Friday disturbed and today’s problem cost us quite a bit of track time, but the car felt pretty good in the quick stuff and also at low speeds. It’s never ideal to lose an engine, but we did, although it was quite high mileage.”

While Malaysia is the third race of the season, Webber was on his first of his eight allotted powerplants for the year.  Clearly, the team was trying to conserve engines as much as possible during the early stages of the season, to avoid grid penalties later on, should they be forced to use more than their sanctioned allotment.

One wonders if the Red Bull brass are beginning to be alarmed.  Lack of consistency spoiled their title hopes last year (runner up Vettel had five DNFs during the year), and already Vettel has been cost two probable wins this season due to mechanical glitches. Deja vu all over again?

As for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were 7th and 15th quickest, respectively. As reported on ESPNF1, Alonso said of his lap time, “It’s pointless to look for any significance in Friday’s classification. I’m seventh, but I could just as well have been second or last and it would not have changed anything. It all depends on the difference between the programs adopted by the teams.”

Massa echoed this sentiment, saying, “As usual, it’s difficult to draw any hurried conclusions after these three hours of free practice. We ran a different program to the other main teams, therefore we can’t tell where we are compared with them.”

Both McLarens spent much of the day working on shorter runs, especially Hamilton.  Jenson Button was fourth quickest, only 0.363 seconds behind Hamilton.  Unlike Hamilton, however, he struggled with the handling of his car.  “It took me quite a while to get to grips with the car’s set-up today,” he said.  “I wasn’t satisfied with it at first.  I didn’t really get a balance that I was happy with, but, towards the end of the session, it started getting better.”

The top five lap times in FP2 were covered by slightly less than a half second, with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher slotting in at 3rd and 5th respectively.  Rosberg was slightly quicker than his illustrious team mate once again, this time by a margin of 0.231 seconds.  One suspects the young pilot and the seasoned veteran are, at this stage of the season at any rate, close enough in relative pace that they’re pushing each other forward.  As long as such intra-team competition can stay friendly terms, Mercedes will be the ultimate beneficiary.

Nico Rosberg was matter-of-fact about his day’s efforts, saying, “Our program went according to plan today and we made progress over the two practice sessions. The tyre work which we completed was particularly useful so we have a lot to go through this evening to see if we can continue to improve the car prior to qualifying.”  He said nothing of his speed in relation to his team mate’s, which has become standard practice for him.  The young German has gone out of his way to be closed-mouthed on this subject, lest he be widely quoted (or misquoted) by the sports media.

Michael Schumacher claimed to be satisfied with the day’s work, but maintained a realistic attitude about the team’s chances during qualifying and the race.  “I am quite happy overall with our work today and the practice sessions went very much as we expected,” the seven-time champion said. “However we have to be realistic about our performance here and we might still be lacking a little compared to the front runners.”

The Renaults of Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov were reasonably impressive in FP2, lapping at 6th and 9th quickest, respectively.  While the Renault doesn’t yet look like the title-contender that it was during Fernando Alonso’s glory years of 2005 and 2006, it appears to be heads and shoulders above last year’s iteration, which was, by Alonso’s estimate, the worst on the grid.

The weather was mostly fine during Friday afternoon’s practice, however the weather forecast for the remainder of the weekend remains dodgy.  Apparently, it’s been raining every evening at about 5.30 pm, local time, like clockwork.  And when it rains in Kuala Lampur, we’re not talking sprinkles.  Rain tomorrow, and/or Sunday, could throw a spanner into most everyone’s works.  But perhaps that was Bernie’s intention all along.  At some of the modern venues, it seems that there’s a direct correlation between the excitement level of the race and the inclemency of the weather.

Image by f1photos.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

Pos. Driver Team Time Laps
1 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:34.175 27
2 Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:34.441 + 0.266 28
3 Rosberg Mercedes 1:34.443 + 0.268 30
4 Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:34.538 + 0.363 24
5 Schumacher Mercedes 1:34.674 + 0.499 30
6 Kubica Renault 1:35.148 + 0.973 34
7 Alonso Ferrari 1:35.581 + 1.406 34
8 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:35.660 + 1.485 39
9 Petrov Renault 1:35.872 + 1.697 20
10 Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:35.957 + 1.782 32
11 Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:36.018 + 1.843 38
12 Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:36.221 + 2.046 34
13 de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:36.325 + 2.150 33
14 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:36.325 + 2.150 39
15 Massa Ferrari F10 1:36.602 + 2.427 30
16 Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:36.813 + 2.638 26
17 Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:37.415 + 3.240 19
18 Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:38.454 + 4.279 34
19 Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 1:38.530 + 4.355 32
20 Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:38.786 + 4.558 13
21 Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:39.061 + 4.886 23
22 di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 1:39.158 + 4.983 29
23 Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 1:41.084 + 6.909 27
24 Senna HRT-Cosworth 1:41.481 + 7.306 32
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