Nancy Knapp Schilke, F1 correspondent
Hamilton remains on top in Malaysia after second practice
Without a doubt, McLaren is the strongest team thus far in the FIA Formula One start of the 2012 season. Lewis Hamilton, weather permitting tomorrow, could end up with his second consecutive pole position. However, one cannot count out his teammate, Jenson Button, who took the victory in the first round last Sunday in Australia. Nor can the Red Bull championship team be ruled out, or the Mercedes drivers.
“It’s been a good day for me. We’ve made a few changes to the balance of the car since the last race and I’m much happier – but we’ll still be making changes to improve our long-run pace, which can always be better. I’m working as hard as I can to have as good a qualifying set-up as my race set-up and I think we’ve got a bit more of an understanding of how the car works on heavy fuel. I went wide a couple of times on my long run in P2, and looking after the tyres will be a tough call in the race – so it’s all about finding the right balance,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton was the fastest in the afternoon in his McLaren-Mercedes with his best lap at a 1:38.172. The Briton topped the time sheets in both practices. Despite the clouds that hovered overhead, the expected rain did not come but the temperatures heated up and Hamilton’s time in the morning of 1:38.021 was the one that no one could touch.
“Around here, overtaking will be a little more possible than in Melbourne. Nevertheless, starting from the front will still be the best position for the race, and that’s what I’ll be going for tomorrow. We’ve got to keep pushing, stay hydrated and remain focused – there’s a lot of hard work ahead,” said Hamilton.
Michael Schumacher was second for the Mercedes factory team with a time of 1:38.533; 0.361 seconds off the pace set by the Briton. It was the second-best time of the day. "We had a good day on track today, and I am very happy about the work that has been done since Australia. This has enabled us to achieve reasonably consistent long runs which is obviously important in these conditions. Saying that, we also know that everyone works on different programmes on Fridays, so I would guess we have not seen everything yet. We are very much aware that we should not be too optimistic about today's outcome," he said.
Button was 0.002 seconds slower than the seven times world champion with his fastest lap of 1:38.535 for McLaren. Actually the Briton’s best of the day was the exact same time that Sebastian Vettel laid down in the first practice which tied the two rivals for third-fastest in the combined practice times.
Button said, “The morning was a little frustrating: we had an oil leak which cut my session short, but it didn’t really matter as the track was still dirty. In the afternoon, I did some positive running on both tyre compounds – I think we have a good understanding of the tyre. But it’s going to be tough on both compounds around here with all the humidity and the heat. I think the race will be tough for all of us – unless the circuit improves a great deal, there’s going to be quite a few stops on Sunday!
“We want a good race car, but the aim for tomorrow is pole – you make your life a lot easier if you start from pole position, so we’re putting a lot of work into single-lap performance,” added Button
Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg was again one of the fastest on the Sepang circuit as he clocked off a 1:38.696 and was just over five tenths adrift of Hamilton’s hot lap. The German improved his best time in practice one by 0.117 seconds and ended fifth for the day. Rosberg said, "We've had a decent start today at one of our home races here in Malaysia so I'm quite happy. We learned a lot about how to use our tyres, and I feel things are going in the right direction but I don't know where we are compared to the others. It will be very interesting how we can manage the situation on Sunday."
The surprise in the second session was Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Daniel Ricciardo, who utilized his Ferrari power to lay down a best lap of 1:38.853 to place him sixth on Friday. “I’ve driven here before in Formula BMW, but when you switch to a Formula 1 car, the notes go out the window! But all the same, it helps to have some previous track experience,” he said.
“The simulator work has probably been more useful to me. The track is quite technical and I think we made a good step forward this afternoon, compared to the morning which was quite difficult. Much of our work today centred on adapting the car to the very different track characteristics here compared to Melbourne and the biggest difference of course is the temperature. The tyres have to work harder in these conditions and therefore getting the car balance right is crucial,” added Ricciardo.
Taking sixth in practice 2 was Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard turned a lap at 1:38.891, a huge improvement over the morning session. It placed him seventh today and gave the team a positive outlook for the weekend.
While others improved during the last practice today, others went backwards. Vettel ended the afternoon with a 1:39.402 and yet his teammate Mark Webber was consistent with his best lap of 1:39.092 between the two practices. “The rain held off, which is always fortunate and we have plenty of work to go through regarding our car set up and the tyres. In terms of the heat here, it’s fine, obviously it's warm in the car but we come prepared for that,” said Webber.
Vettel commented, “I would love to be a bit higher up this afternoon, but all in all we had decent running today – although there is still a lot to do. The tyres drop off quite quickly here, which is the same for all the drivers, but I think we are sliding quite a bit and I would like the car to be a bit more stable. We will see what we can do tomorrow.”
... but as soon as you stop the heat really hits you.
Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne had a huge improvement with his fastest lap time set this afternoon at a 1:39.297. He said, “Since last year, I’ve driven the track at the simulator a lot, but they don’t have the heating turned to maximum in Milton Keynes! Overall, I think today went well for us, I had a strong long run this afternoon, when my pace was good and Daniel’s lap time shows we have a good car. I feel quite confident and happy with how things are going.”
Force India’s two drivers were both in the top 10 in the morning and they ended the day feeling positive with their cars and their Mercedes engines. Paul di Resta had his best lap at a time of 1:39.298 just besting his teammate Nico Hulkenberg.
“A very hot day in the car, but we got through most of the programme and have enough information going into tomorrow. There was an issue with one of the brake discs in the afternoon session, which probably looked more dramatic from outside the car, so the team made some changes before I started my long runs on the medium tyre,” explained di Resta.
Hulkenberg said, “I think we learned quite a lot and the car feels totally different compared to Melbourne because of the track characteristics and the hotter conditions. The set-up work we did is promising for tomorrow and the long runs have given us lots of useful data, which was something we missed out on doing in Melbourne.”
One of the ones who can make up ground is the Williams team and today they set some good times. The fastest driver in the morning was their third driver, Valtteri Bottas. The GP3 champion was 11th in his first Formula One practice with a time of 1:39.724. just faster than team driver Pastor Maldonado.
“I am only the ninth Finnish person ever to drive during a Grand Prix weekend, which is a nice fact that I’ve just found out. After testing in Barcelona, my focus was on coming here and I’ve prepared myself as I would for a race weekend, both physically and mentally. I had a good rhythm from the beginning of P1 and we completed our programme ahead of P2. It was so hot out there, the hardest conditions I’ve driven in. While you are driving you don’t feel it as much but as soon as you stop the heat really hits you,” said Bottas.
Maldonado’s times in both practices were close with his best lap at 1:39.444 and he commented, “We’ve had a good day of running in Malaysia. The team have done a great job and we completed our test programme without any problems. The car looks consistent and I’m really looking forward to tomorrow. It will be a challenge to get into Q3, but I will be pushing hard to achieve that.”
Bruno Senna returned to his seat for practice two and like all things in Formula One, rumors floated the minute Bottas completed one lap. Senna concentrated on the job at hand and he said, “We had more work to do this afternoon having not run in P1, but our pace on longer runs looked good. We still need to improve throughout P3 tomorrow morning, but we have a good direction to go in. The track is very different to Australia and it will be a long, tough race but I am looking forward to it.”
Another who showed consistency was Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi who ended with a best time of 1:39.687; just two-tenths difference between the two practices but he did have a gearbox problem during practice 2. “It was the first time we have used the 2012 tyres in such high temperatures and the degradation is quite significant. Probably this had an impact as well, but in any case we struggled with the balance of the car quite a lot today,” he said.
Sergio Perez was not happy with his Sauber C31 with his best lap of 1:40.085 and explained, “It was a difficult day in terms of setting up the car and getting the balance right. It was better on long runs than on single laps. We managed to achieve some improvements for the second free practice and now we will be looking carefully at the data tonight.”
Marussia continues to struggle and yet Timo Glock said in a positive light: “Today has been a pretty good day for us I have to say. This is one of the toughest Fridays of the season for the whole team and they did a great job. Our programme meant we had to do a lot of work on the car and the guys were constantly on the ‘go’. We still have some way to go; the car is not perfect yet by any means. We have however made a lot of progress so we need to keep this up for tomorrow.”
Glock’s young teammate Charles Pic added, “It’s not easy for the team working in the heat here; it has been a long day for everybody. Now we have a lot of information to take into tomorrow and I will also have the new rear floor parts to try, so I’m looking forward to that. A very good job by everyone and my thanks to them.”
The HRT team stated that they “enjoyed a complete day of testing without great complications, taking another step forwards in this new age for the Spanish team.” Narain Karthikeyan stressed the important factor for the team when he said, “… the important thing is that we’re within the 107% time and can continue to improve and be in better conditions. I definitely felt the difference with regards to Australia but we need a lot more. This is one of the hardest races of the year so we’re going to need to work hard to be able to have a good performance.”
HRT’s Pedro de la Rosa added, "Today has been a positive day for us because it panned out with the normality of a practice session day, and that in itself is good news. For the first time we were able to try out different solutions on this car: the DRS is working, the power steering has improved from Australia and, although we’re not where we would like to be, we’ve taken a considerable step forward.”
The weather tomorrow, with predicted rain, can easily change the outcome of qualifying but first will be practice 3.