Flying Finn Kimi Raikkonen leads the charge as Lotus catch up with Red Bull at Sepang
E21 shows improved single-lap pace with Ferrari also in the mix
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 23/03/13 7:03am
And then there were three? Judging by the evidence of Friday's practice sessions, the Sepang stage appears set to host a fascinating and finely-poised battle between frontrunners Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus at this weekend's Malaysian GP.
Although first impressions are notoriously unreliable, the early indications from Malaysia are that the three frontrunners in Australia have picked up from where they left off a week ago with Melbourne victors Lotus closing the gap to the World Champions over a single lap.
Despite Red Bull leading the way in Practice One, the Lotus' long-run consistency continued to impress throughout the morning before Kimi Raikkonen supplied trenchant evidence in the afternoon session that the E21 could also be a match for the RB9 in Saturday's qualifying shoot-out.
Having been comprehensively out-paced over a single lap at Melbourne, it was Raikkonen who headed the Practice Two timesheets - the first occasion he has done so in any practice outing since returning to F1 last year - with the leading Lotus, Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel and Felipe Massa's Ferrari separated by less than a tenth of a second at the close of play.
Nonetheless, it is the form and speed of the 2007 World Champion which is the talk of the paddock.
"Kimi is driving beautifully," endorsed Sky Sports F1 pundit Martin Brundle. "He might be better than he has ever been or at least as good as he was at his peak during the first part of his career."
Refusing to rest on their laurels, and a clear statement of intent, the Melbourne winnners also trialled a new front-wing configuration on both E21s during practice, although only Raikkonen's car ran the new exhaust layout.
"We still think the Red Bull is the fastest car, but Kimi has just as good a chance of winning this race as anyone else," added Brundle.
The Ferrari, meanwhile, continues to catch the eye as an all-round package, with Massa and Fernando Alonso there or thereabouts in both sessions. Having out-qualified the Spaniard in Melbourne, the revitalised Massa once again headed his illustrious team-mate on Friday and the emerging battle of wills at the Scuderia is already developing into a fascinating subplot for the new season.
Mercedes had a quiet day, opting to keep their powder dry and running race simulations in order to dial out the understeer which undermined Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in Sunday's Australian GP.
"We've had good runs on both cars," Mercedes Team Principal Ross Brawn assured Sky Sports F1 from the Mercedes pitwall. "We haven't seen many of the other cars run on heavy fuels so we don't know what their times would have been liked but obviously we were interested in our consistency and the response of their tyres.
"We've definitely made a step in the right direction."
That positivity was echoed by Lewis Hamilton, who confirmed that he had yet to complete any lower-fuel running at Sepang after only setting the ninth fastest times in both sessions.
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"We made some positive steps with the set-up over the two sessions today. I had a good long run in the dry which has given us a lot of information to look at tonight," Hamilton said.
"We didn't learn too much in the wet this afternoon however as the conditions were quite mixed when I went out. We focused mainly on longer runs today so I haven't done a quick lap yet on either set of tyres; that will come tomorrow. I'm happy with the direction that we're going and let's see what the weekend brings."
Alas, nobody at McLaren could declare as much with any confidence just yet. The team's well-documented struggles still show no signficant signs of abating, with Jenson Button in excess of a second off the pace in both sessions and Sporting Director Sam Michael unable to offer a timeframe on when the team might be able to return to the front of the grid.
"We're not going to be fighting at the front but I do think we can get closer to getting more out of what we have," said Button before conceding he doesn't expect to qualify in the top ten.
To the understandable frustration of spectators - both attendees and viewers - track action was at an acute premium in the morning session, with just a couple of cars setting timed laps in the opening forty-five minutes. It's understood that one leading F1 figure has responded with a letter to Pirelli recommending that an extra set of tyres is supplied specifically to generate more track action in Practice One.