Sepang Practice 1: Webber tops with Raikkonen chasing

Mark Webber set the early pace in Malaysia

Mark Webber during FP1 in Malaysia

Mark Webber set the early pace in the opening free practice session of the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend, at Sepang International Circuit, heading up a trio of Renault powered cars.

Webber, who set a best time of 1:36.93, was the only driver to dip below the 97 seconds mark, but was only 0.068 up on Australian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus.

The Finn set his best time on his first flyer, after spending much of the first half of the session watching his mechanics sort out a technical issue with the floor on the E21. By then though, Webber had set the benchmark time which would remain top of the timing screens until the session ended.

Webber’s Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel was third quickest at the end of the ninety minutes session, under bright blue skies with hot and humid conditions typical of a Malaysian day at this time of the year.

Kimi Raikkonen Lotus E21

Kimi Raikkonen Lotus E21

Next best was last year’s winner Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari F138, who was 0.384 seconds down on the top time and about half a second up on his teammate Felipe Massa who ended the session seventh.

Nico Rosberg was fastest of the Mercedes powered brigade, ahead of Force India’s returnee Adrian Sutil who was sixth, teammate Paul di Resta was eighth ahead of ninth best Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes W04.

Romain Grosjean was tenth on the timing screens in the Lotus, albeit almost a second down on Raikkonen –  the top ten were separated by under one second.

As expected McLaren were struggling again, with Jenson Button ending the session 11th fastest, but 1.238 seconds down on the top pace, while teammate Sergio Perez could only manage 13th but 1.895 off Webber’s best.

Fernando Alonso Ferrari F138

Fernando Alonso Ferrari F138

Williams, who also endured a miserable weekend in Melbourne, were also on the wrong half of the timing screens with Pastor Maldonado 12th, but 1.738 seconds adrift of the best time. Teammate, and rookie, Valtteri Bottas was 16th, over two seconds shy of the best time of the morning.

The exact pecking order in Malaysia is yet to fully emerge, however a given is that the Red Bull duo have strong short stint pace, with Lotus – particularly Raikkonen – also strong as are the Ferrari pair. Mercedes may be knocking on the door, but still appear to be struggling with grip.

Force India appear to have carried their good form from Albert Park to Sepang, while McLaren’s woes appear to continue.

Amid the uncertainties in Malaysia, one certainty is abundantly clear: who best manages the Pirelli rubber during the course of qualifying and the race – in the heat and on the abrasive track surface – is likely to step on to the top tier of the Sepang podium on Sunday afternoon

Free Practice 1 Results, Sepang – Friday, 22 March 2013

Pos No Driver Team Time Gap Laps
1 2 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:36.935 15
2 7 Kimi Räikkönen Lotus-Renault 1:37.003 0.068 15
3 1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:37.104 0.169 21
4 3 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:37.319 0.384 13
5 9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:37.588 0.653 19
6 15 Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:37.769 0.834 17
7 4 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:37.771 0.836 15
8 14 Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1:37.773 0.838 15
9 10 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:37.840 0.905 18
10 8 Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1:37.915 0.980 17
11 5 Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:38.173 1.238 16
12 16 Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1:38.673 1.738 16
13 6 Sergio Perez McLaren-Mercedes 1:38.830 1.895 17
14 11 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.054 2.119 17
15 12 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.204 2.269 16
16 17 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Renault 1:39.208 2.273 19
17 18 Jean-Eric Vergne STR-Ferrari 1:39.284 2.349 17
18 19 Daniel Ricciardo STR-Ferrari 1:39.567 2.632 16
19 21 Giedo van der Garde Caterham-Renault 1:40.728 3.793 17
20 22 Jules Bianchi Marussia-Cosworth 1:40.996 4.061 14
21 20 Charles Pic Caterham-Renault 1:41.163 4.228 18
22 23 Max Chilton Marussia-Cosworth 1:41.513 4.578 14