By Max Davies, F1 correspondent
Red Bull Racing closed the first day of practice for this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix in dominant style with Mark Webber setting the fastest time in both free practice sessions around the Sepang track.
It was a message of sheer intent to forget the below-par performance the Australian produced a fortnight ago during his home race around the splendour of Albert Park. Free from the pressure that goes with an expectant Aussie crowd, the 34-year old was quickly into a pace-setting rhythm and was the class of the field although McLaren’s Jenson Button ran him close in the final session, finishing less than 0.05s off the pace.
Lewis Hamilton and defending champion Sebastian Vettel were 3rd and 4th for McLaren and Red Bull and McLaren respectively with the session resulting in the top four drivers being separated by less than 0.250s.
Indicating improved pace, Michael Schumacher managed to survive a scary moment at Turn 6 to finish 5th fastest for Mercedes while Felipe Massa was the leading Ferrari driver in 6th.
Nico Rosberg struggled at times with the braking stability of his Mercedes, loosing time under heaving braking for the tight hair pins at the start and end of the lap on his way to 7th while Nick Heidfeld, keen to do ‘a Webber’ and forget his Australian GP performance, ended the final session in 8th place. Fernando Alonso and Jaime Algersuari rounded out the top ten for Ferrari and Toro Rosso.
The earlier session was an eventful one with both Vitaly Petrov and Jerome d’Ambrosio suffering high speed car failures for Lotus Renault GP and Marussia Virgin, both drivers however emerged unscathed while the only real incident of note during the second session was the crash that befell Pastor Maldonado who went off in the Williams. The Venezuelan was faster than his team mate Rubens Barrichello and was impressive in his consistent lap times until the accident as the pair claimed 11th and 12th.
Once again, tyre degradation was an issue and highlighted some interesting rates of wear as the teams experimented with low and high fuel loads.