Sepang Practice 1: Hamilton tops and keeps the momentum going

Lewis Hamilton quickest in the opening session at Sepang

Lewis Hamilton was quickest in the opening session at Sepang

Mar.23 (PVM) A mere five days since they were switched off in Melbourne, Formula 1 engines were fired up again for first free practice of the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend at Sepang and carrying the momentum from down under was Lewis Hamilton who posted the fastest time in the session by over half a second on a cloudy but hot day with 70% humidity!

Sebastian Vettel second quickest

Sebastian Vettel second quickest

The Englishman, still smarting from missed opportunities at less than a week earlier, is in determined mood and will relish the fact that the MP4-27 was again quick out the box at the Sepang which is a very different circuit to Albert Park. McLaren engineers have delivered a very handy package from the word go.

Hamilton’s teammate, and Melbourne winner, Jenson Button was down the order – ninth fastest – after his MP4-27 developed an oil leak which cost him about 20 minutes of track time. Nevertheless he ended the session ninth best without having a real go at a hot lap – for sure more to come from Button.

Second fastest after 90 minutes was reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull RB8, he traded fast laps with Hamilton around mid-session before focusing on runs using Pirelli’s hard rubber, which struggled for grip and were dramatically off the mediums – make that around 3 seconds slower – with comparatively little grip which caught out most drivers during the session.

Kimi Raikkonen on his return to Sepang

Kimi Raikkonen on his return to Sepang

Up next were the Mercedes pair, again showing a good turn of pace in short bursts, with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher fourth and fifth on the timing screens.

Fifth fastest was Romain Grosjean, who had a delayed start to his morning due to an issue with the right rear of his Lotus E20 but showed handy pace during his runs. The top five were within a second of Hamilton’s best.

Mark Webber had a trouble free session, getting into the groove, on his way to setting the sixth best time in the Red Bull RB8.

Topping the timing screens briefly around the half hour mark was Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus E20 who eventually ended seventh fastest, just shy of his teammate’s  best time. The Iceman has not taken long to dial himself back into the fray.

The Force India pair, Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg, were eighth and ninth respectively with similarly Mercedes powered Button splitting them on the final timing sheets.

Pitstop for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari crew

Pitstop for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari crew

Sitting out the first session for Williams in Malaysia was Bruno Senna, with the team’s reserve Valtteri Bottas on duty in the Williams FW34 –  the young Finn  ended the session 11th fastest, 0.059 seconds up on Pastor Maldonado in the sister car.

Bracing themselves  (and their legions of fans around the globe) for another torrid weekend are Ferrari who are showing all the signs of a team in deep crisis. Their pit garage was a scene of frenetic activity as new parts – apparently rushed out from Maranello – being bolted on to the cars, all very last minute. Asa consequence, perhaps, Felipe Massa was down in 13th and Fernando Alonso in 15th. The pair nearly two seconds down on Hamilton’s best.

At the foot of the timing sheets were the HRT duo, over 7 seconds adrift of the morning’s fastest lap and about a second down on their closest rivals – Marussia. The Spanish outfit still clearly not ready to ply their trade at the highest level. Nevertheless between Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa they notched up 26 laps, with the veteran Spaniard tallying up 18 of these.

The Sepang track surface is still very green, as daily afternoon rains prevail in the area, and as a result just about everyone was struggling for grip. The medium tyre is going to be vital and grid position may not be as important as having a spare set of mediums for the race.

And of course this is Malaysia – rainy season Malaysia – so the wet weather tyres might become a major factor if weather predictions for the weekend at Sepang are anything to go by…

Weather for Sepang, Selangor, Malaysia:

Free Practice 1 – Sepang, 23 March 2012

Pos No Driver Team Time Gap Laps
1 4 Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:38.021 19
2 1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:38.535 0.514 21
3 8 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:38.813 0.792 21
4 7 Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1:38.826 0.805 19
5 10 Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1:38.919 0.898 17
6 2 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:39.092 1.071 20
7 9 Kimi Räikkönen Lotus-Renault 1:39.128 1.107 22
8 11 Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1:39.298 1.277 23
9 3 Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:39.323 1.302 15
10 12 Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1:39.440 1.419 19
11 19 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Renault 1:39.724 1.703 23
12 18 Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1:39.783 1.762 23
13 6 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:39.896 1.875 16
14 14 Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.910 1.889 21
15 5 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:39.980 1.959 23
16 17 Jean-Eric Vergne STR-Ferrari 1:40.099 2.078 23
17 20 Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1:40.247 2.226 19
18 16 Daniel Ricciardo STR-Ferrari 1:40.469 2.448 23
19 21 Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1:40.857 2.836 25
20 15 Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1:41.085 3.064 23
21 24 Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1:43.170 5.149 18
22 25 Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1:44.580 6.559 14
23 23 Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1:45.360 7.339 8
24 22 Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1:45.528 7.507 18