Nancy Knapp Schilke, F1 correspondent
McLaren appears to be the FIA Formula One team that was definitely prepared before the new season started as Lewis Hamilton earned the pole for the Australian Grand Prix and his teammate Jenson Button dominated the race for the first win of the season. Without a weekend off, the teams and their drivers will now contest the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Fast forward to the Sepang circuit with its humidity on top of the expected heat on the Malaysia circuit and note that it was Hamilton who set the fastest lap time in his McLaren-Mercedes with a 1:38.021 with the hard Pirelli tires for the opening practice.
However, second and 0.514 second off the Briton’s pace was the two-time defending champion, Sebastian Vettel. The German clocked a 1:38.535 for the Red Bull team powered by Renault.
Not too far adrift of the top two was Nico Rosberg for the Mercedes factory team with a 1:38.813; just under eight-tenths off of Hamilton’s time. Not far off his own teammate, Michael Schumacher ended fourth with a 1:38.826.
Romain Grosjean set the fifth fastest time of 1:38.919 for the Lotus Renault team even after a delay to fix a rear-end stability issue. The Frenchman was quicker than his Finnish teammate as Kimi Raikkonen’s best was a 1:39.128 to place seventh in the first practice.
Sixth was a bit of a surprise when Mark Webber laid down a lap of 1:39.092. The Australian had a right rear corner that needed to be fixed on his Red Bull RB8 and yet still managed a time before the air temperatures rose by six degrees after the first 60 minutes of the 90 minute time allotted for the first of the two Friday practice sessions.
Paul di Resta placed his Force India car ahead of winner of the first race of 2012. Di Resta clocked a time of 1:39.298 while Button’s best for his McLaren was 1:39.323. Rounding out the top 10 was the other Force India driver; Nico Hulkenberg’s best was 1:39.440.
Williams two drivers were 11th and 12th with the 2012 GP3 champion, Valtteri Bottas being a bit faster than Pastor Maldonado. Not a bad showing for the team now powered by Renault and an impressive run for Bottas who is the third driver as he gains experience this year. Bottas turned his best lap at 1:39.724 in his first-ever Friday practice in the FW34. Maldonado had a 1:39.783.
While Ferrari continues to discount the rumors of replacing Felipe Massa before the season ends, the Brazilian, and his teammate Fernando Alonso had disappointing runs with Massa clicking off a 1:39.896 while the Spaniard’s best was a 1:39.980. The Scuderia Ferrari team has struggled since the first test of the new car during the pre-season test days. Kamui Kobayasahi did not have an easy morning in his Sauber but yet the Japanese racer was faster than Alonso with a best lap of 1:39.910.
Sergio Perez did not make life any easier for the Sauber team as he went off at Turn 4, not once but twice. His best lap was a 1:41.085 with a dismal 20th on the timesheets. Jean-Eric Vergne was 16th, just behind Alonso. The young driver had a lap of 1:40.099 in his Toro Rosso, and his teammate Daniel Ricciardo clocked off a 1:40.469. Between the two Toro Rosso drivers and the first one to lay down a lap time with the medium compound Pirelli tires was Heikki Kovalainen. The Caterham driver’s best was a 1:40.247. The Finn’s teammate Vitaly Petrov also tested the medium tires and his best lap time was a 1:40.857 to land 19th, just in front of Perez.
The teams that really need to pick up their times due to the 107% qualifications rule were Marussia and HRT. Both were having difficulties with Timo Glock only doing 14 laps, and his Marussia teammate Charles Pic spent most of the practice time in the team’s garage. Not a good sign. On the other side of the coin, Pedro de la Rosa put down valuable lap times on his car; however his teammate Narain Karthikeyan ended up with gearshift problems.
The expected rain may come during the second practice.