Just weeks after the Singapore Grand Prix, one of the toughest races for drivers and teams, they’re back at it again. As teams touched down in Kuala Lumpur to return to sweltering Sepang for the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend. A true test of both drivers and team’s endurance levels in the high heat environment.
Despite the fact that the Sepang circuit has hosted the Grand Prix since 1999, it was something of a leap into the unknown for the drivers and teams today following extensive renovation work to the track. The track has been resurfaced completely, getting rid of some of the bumps on the entries into corners, as well as an improved drainage system, which can only be a good thing when the downpours being in Malaysia.
“The tarmac has been completely renewed, including alterations to kerbs, drainage and the camber of some corners, we’re therefore approach this weekend as if it were a brand new circuit,” reported Mercedes Chief Technical Officer Paddy Lowe.
Paddy had no need to worry about his team though, as in Free Practice 1 it was the Mercedes driver of Nico Rosberg who managed to keep a cool head and set the initial pace on a 1:35.227 from his team mate and championship rival Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was around half a second slower than his team mate, however it is interesting to note he was on the harder medium compound tyres while Rosberg was on the soft tyres for his fastest lap.
The Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen was third quickest behind the Mercedes duo, and just a fraction ahead of team mate Sebastian Vettel. However, both cars were over a second off of Rosberg’s time despite being on the same soft tyre to set their lap. This may prove to be a critical weekend for Ferrari though in terms of taking their first win of the season. It was at the Malaysian Grand Prix last year that Vettel took his first win for the Italian team after he preserved his tyres better than the Mercedes. Making a two stop strategy work better than their three stop strategy. The team may be looking to try something similar again this year in an attempt to score that elusive win.
It was a more positive session once again for the McLaren team, with Fernando Alonso finishing an impressive 5th behind the Ferrari’s with his new and improved Honda engine. However, it was not all good news, the new engine means Alonso will have to start the race from the pack of the grid after picking up a combined 30 place grid penalty. His teammate Jenson Button, who is celebrating his 300th GP start this weekend, finished the session in 10th with the old power unit. Showing there is strong signs of recovery for the McLaren team following a rather tumultuous season and a half thanks to an underperforming Honda engine plan.
The Red Bull duo of Danial Ricciardo and birthday boy Max Verstappen were 6th and 7th respectively, over four tenths down on the slower Ferrari of Vettel. And with the team locked in a bitter battle for second in the constructors with them, this is probably the last thing they wish to see right now. While the Force India duo of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez were 8th and 9th for their team. Like Red Bull they are locked into a battle in the constructors with Williams over 4th place, with the momentum currently in favour of Force India, albeit by one point.
The most dramatic moment of the session though went to the Renault of Kevin Magnussen, who cased a red flag just seven minutes into the session as his car caught fine in the pitlane. The Dane had to leap to safety as flames poured out of the airbox. The team mechanics were soon on the scene fighting the fire, however with fuel pumping out of the car, the car still sporadically caught ablaze for the next 10 minutes. Thankfully no one was injured and the team were able to put the fire out eventually.
“We had a fuel leak from a breather,” Renault Technical Director Nick Chester told reporters after the incident. “We were running the tank full and we were running some experimental parts in preparation for Mexico, so it was a different setup to the other car. We are looking at what happened.” I would highly suggest until they do find out what happened, that it might not be worth running those parts on the car in Mexico later on this month.
Free Practice 2 saw Hamilton find some form in his Mercedes to top his practice session since the Italian Grand Prix with a 1:34.944, almost three tenths of a second faster than his team mate Rosberg. Hamilton, who has lost the lead of the title race to Rosberg after three successive victories for the German since the summer break, will be looking to take the fight to Rosberg again this weekend to keep his championship hopes alive.
The Ferrari of Vettel finished the session in 3rd with Raikkonen in 4th, however once again the team was over half a second down on the two Mercedes. It is fair to say the Mercedes are in a class of their own this weekend in terms of one lap pace, meaning unless a dramatic rain shower shakes things up, it’s likely to be a two horse race for qualifying between Hamilton and Rosberg. What Ferrari can be happy with though is that they seem to be closer to the Mercedes on long run pace, leading to hopes the race may not go completely Mercedes way.
Even more positive news for Ferrari is they were four tenths faster than the fastest Red Bull of Verstappen, who finished the session in 5th in front of the Force India of Perez in 6th place. Once again Alonso impressed with the new power unit and was able to finish 7th in his McLaren, with the second Red Bull of Ricciardo in 8th. Hulkenberg was 9th in the other Force India, a tenth down on his team mates time, while Button finished FP2 once again in 10th. While it was a more positive FP2 for Magnussen, as he was able to get some running in after the team worked on his car following his fire in FP1.
While it looks like a cut and dry two horse race for pole between the Mercedes of Rosberg and Hamilton, anything could happen tomorrow, especially if a rain storm hits at the wrong point. The interesting battle will be behind the Mercedes between the Red Bull and Ferrari for best of the rest. The Ferraris look to have the advantage over the Red Bulls, but the question is whether they’ll be able to keep that going into Qualifying.
Free Practice 1 results
1. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, 1:35.227
2. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, + 0.494
3. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, + 1.088
4. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, + 1.104
5. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, + 1.283
6. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, + 1.526
7. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, + 1.746
8. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India, + 2.286
9. Sergio Perez, Force India, + 2.374
10. Jenson Button, McLaren, + 2.386
11. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, + 2.620
12. Valtteri Bottas, Williams, + 2.634
13. Romain Grosjean, Haas, + 2.659
14. Esteban Gutierrez, Haas, + 2.694
15. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, + 2.828
16. Felipe Nasr, Sauber, + 2.957
17. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, + 3.086
18. Felipe Massa, Williams, + 3.112
19. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, + 3.921
20. Esteban Ocon, Manor, + 4.809
21. Pascal Wehrlein, Manor, + 5.400
22. Kevin Magnussen, Renault, no time set
Free Practice Two Results
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:34.944
2. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, + 0.233
3. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, + 0.661
4. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, + 0.989
5. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, + 1.093
6. Sergio Perez, Force India, + 1.340
7. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, + 1.352
8. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, + 1.393
9. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India, + 1.446
10. Jenson Button, McLaren, + 1.771
11. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, + 1.892
12. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, + 1.996
13. Valtteri Bottas, Williams, + 2.072
14. Esteban Gutierrez, Haas, + 2.104
15. Felipe Massa, Williams, + 2.166
16. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, + 2.353
17. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, + 2.505
18. Felipe Nasr, Sauber, + 2.603
19. Kevin Magnussen, Renault, + 2.720
20. Romain Grosjean, Haas, + 2.845
21. Pascal Wehrlein, Manor, + 2.934
22. Esteban Ocon, Manor, + 3.046
Feature Image Credit: Renault Sport F1 Press Release