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Lewis sets the standard in Sepang Practice

Hamilton looks the man to beat on practice form in Sepang (FoxSports)

LEWIS Hamilton set the standard in practice for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix.  The McLaren driver looked comfortable on the Sepang layout throughout the day and ending up topping the timesheets today in both sessions.  In the morning session, he lapped a full half a second faster than world champion Sebastian Vettel in very humid conditions.  A few hours later, Michael Schumacher was the Brit’s closest challenger, but still 0.4secs slower.  Although thunderstorms are forecasted for the rest of the weekend, Hamilton will start tomorrow’s qualifying session as an overwhelming favourite for pole position.

Having looked decidedly unhappy with his podium in Albert Park last Sunday, there were questions being raised about Hamilton’s attitude.  However, he came across as a happier individual in the paddock today and looks in formidable form.  Team-mate Jenson Button was playing down the pace of the car today, admitting to BBC Sport that this year’s regulations are making the circuit configuration harder for everyone. “It is always tricky around here.  Compared to last race, there is far less grip around here.  It’s working ok, but compared to last year, the new regulations make it far more difficult around here.”

Mercedes GP were McLaren’s closest rivals today, with Schumacher and Nico Rosberg featuring prominently in the top four in both sessions.  Vettel, who expressed that the balance was not perfect over the team radio in the second session wound up a slightly frustrated tenth.  He is normally cool, but even the young German seemed to be feeling the heat of Kuala Lumpur after his struggles this afternoon.

There was plenty of drivers who made use of the wide asphalt areas, although only Narain Karthikeyan stopped out on track today and that was after only eight laps in the first session thanks to a hydraulic glitch on the struggling HRT.  The one driver who suffered the most was Paul di Resta, who went off the road twice.  His first execursion was caused by a brake duct issue, which punctured one of his front tyres.  The second mistake was down to driver error, although the Scot did keep the car out of the barriers.

Ferrari have brought a new chassis to this event for Felipe Massa, although the Brazilian made no impact on the times.  Team-mate Fernando Alonso experimented with a new front wing in second practice and finished a solid sixth, after finishing up behind Massa in session one.  There was a new driver in the car today, as GP3 champion Valterri Bottas took over from Bruno Senna this morning for Williams.  The youngster accredited himself well, outpacing Pastor Maldonado before handing back driving duties to Senna this afternoon.

There was a blow for Kimi Raikkonen, when his gearbox which had been damaged by some off-roading in Australia overheated in the sweltering conditions.  He will lose five grid positions for the race by getting a new gearbox.  Raikkonen told Sky Sports F1; “It was a frustrating day.  We struggled to get a good set-up and it felt quite slippery.  Hopefully it will be better tomorrow.”  Fellow Finn Heikki Kovalainen will get a five place drop too following a Safety Car infringement in Melbourne.

Raikkonen also mentioned about high levels of tyre degradation and the boss of Pirelli, Paul Hembrey has admitted that three stops are likely for most drivers on raceday.  So, Mercedes GP look like a contender for top grid positions, Red Bull have work to do and McLaren certainly seem to be the leading force again.  Weather permitting, Hamilton has to be confident for his chances tomorrow.

MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 1 TIMES

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 19 1.38.021
2 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 21 1.38.535
3 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 21 1.38.813
4 MICHAEL SCUMACHER MERCEDES GP 19 1.38.826
5 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 17 1.38.919
6 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 20 1.39.092
7 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 22 1.39.128
8 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 23 1.39.298
9 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 15 1.39.323
10 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 19 1.39.440
11 VALTERRI BOTTAS WILLIAMS RENAULT 23 1.39.724
12 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 23 1.39.783
13 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 16 1.39.896
14 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 21 1.39.910
15 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 23 1.39.980
16 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 23 1.40.099
17 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 19 1.40.247
18 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 23 1.40.469
19 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 25 1.40.857
20 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 23 1.41.085
21 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 18 1.43.170
22 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 14 1.44.580
23 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 8 1.45.360
24 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 18 1.45.528

MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 2 TIMES

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 28 1.38.172
2 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 34 1.38.533
3 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 30 1.38.535
4 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 34 1.38.696
5 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 33 1.38.853
6 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 27 1.38.891
7 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 29 1.39.133
8 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 33 1.39.297
9 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 22 1.39.311
10 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 25 1.39.402
11 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 35 1.39.444
12 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 26 1.39.464
13 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 20 1.39.625
14 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 16 1.39.687
15 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 29 1.39.696
16 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 28 1.40.271
17 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 34 1.40.678
18 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 33 1.40.947
19 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 25 1.41.464
20 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 20 1.41.681
21 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 18 1.42.594
22 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 24 1.42.874
23 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 18 1.43.658
24 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 22 1.43.823
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History of the Malaysian Grand Prix

HERMANN Tilke’s first Formula One circuit was the challenging and demanding Sepang, home to the Malaysian Grand Prix.  In the 13 runnings of the race so far, there have been plenty of great stories in a place known for its humid heat temperatures and biblical thunderstorms!

The first event was held in 1999 and the inagural race came at a crucial time for the world championship battle that season.  Mika Hakkinen arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a slender two point advantage over Eddie Irvine.  What’s more, Michael Schumacher chose this race to return after his six race absence as he recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the British Grand Prix.  Schumacher returned in style, by qualifying a whole second faster than anyone else, then dictating the race so well, Irvine was almost too slow to beat him.  The Ulsterman got help from the normal Ferrari no.1, twice being allowed into the lead.  He used clever defensive tactics to keep an exhausted Hakkinen back in third place.  Just as Ferrari celebrated a magnificent 1-2, the team were thrown out after measurements from the scrutineers suggested the team were running illegal barge boards.  The fault was even admitted by technical director Ross Brawn and the championship was Hakkinen’s.  Conversly, Ferrari’s lodged an appeal, saying the measurement taken was from an angle, not a flat surface.  A week later, the FIA overturned the decision made by the stewards and Ferrari kept their victory.

The Schumacher family have had plenty of success down the years in Malaysia.  Ralf produced one of his most convincing displays in 2002 to lead home a Williams 1-2.  That day, his older brother clashed with Juan Pablo Montoya in the first corner and the Colombian was given a very harsh drive-through penalty.  At least he made some history in becoming the first ever recipient of one of these penalties!  Schumacher Snr won the final race in 2000, more remembered for the red wigs the team showered themselves on the podium with after wrapping up a second constructors title in a row.  The race also brought a sad end to Johnny Herbert’s career, as he sustained leg injuries in a nasty accident when his Jaguar rear suspension collapsed.  In 2001, the Ferrari team produced a stunning recovery from a synchronised gravel visit from both Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, then a 84-second pitstop in the midst of a traditional Malaysian monsoon.  The team’s decision to fit intermediates saw them ending up annihilathting their rivals once the Safety Car withdrew.

Malaysia was also the setting stone for a changing of the guard in 2003.  Then, a 21-year old fresher looking Fernando Alonso stunned the paddock by becoming the youngest ever poleman for Renault.  He went onto finish third on an aggressive strategy, becoming the first Spaniard on the Grand Prix podium since 1956.  The race was controlled by Kimi Raikkonen, with the 23-year old winning his first race for McLaren, a feat that left Ron Dennis close to tears.  That day gave us a glimpse of the exciting future that lay await for Formula One fans.  A year later, Jenson Button joined the elite when he made up for two agonising near misses in Malaysia previously and earnt his first F1 podium for BAR Honda.  For the record, the 2004 race was Schumacher’s third and final Malaysian success.

There were victories for Alonso in 2005 and 2007 for Renault and McLaren respectively and a Giancarlo Fisichella triumph in 2006, also for Renault.  In 2008, Raikkonen produced a convincing display to take the honours on the tenth anniversary of the event.  A Ferrari 1-2 was thrown away when Felipe Massa made an elementary error and spun into the gravel trap.  Raikkonen has had plenty of drama down the years in Sepang and more came his way in 2009.  Predicting a thunderstorm in this part of the world is always hard to do, but Ferrari attempted to do so and put Raikkonen on full wets on a bone dry track!  The thunderstorm held off for a long while, but when it rained, you know about it.  Fading daylight and the unrelanting rain meant the race was stopped and eventually abandoned, with half points being awarded.  Button won his second race in a row for Brawn GP.  On the same weekend, Lewis Hamilton was forced to face the media after being disqualified from the race in Melbourne for lying to race stewards.

Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel have turned the place into their own over the past two seasons, winning in 2010 and 2011.  Can they make it a hat-trick in 2012?  Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen have all tasted success in Sepang in the past – who knows what will happen in 2012, especially with the forecast for a wet weekend.