SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Lewis Hamilton found a new way to demonstrate Mercedes’ domination of Formula One by sitting out two thirds of Friday’s practice sessions for the Malaysian Grand Prix and yet was still the fastest.
The period spent cooling his heels in the garage, out of the fierce tropical heat, was not of Hamilton’s choosing. The car developed a problem with its engine inlets very early in morning practice, and it took the crew three hours to fix, costing him the first 40 minutes of afternoon practice, too.
He then went out on track and almost immediately set the top time at the Sepang International Circuit, and later said that was not representative of the true pace he should achieve on Saturday and Sunday.
That would be depressing news for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who was a third of a second behind Hamilton in second place on the timesheets, and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, who was third.
”It was an amazing job by the guys to get me back out this afternoon, particularly here in such tough conditions,” Hamilton said.
”In terms of setup, I didn’t have time to make any changes, I just went with what we brought over from the last race. It’s probably quite a bit off where I’ll eventually want it, so there’s definitely improvements to be made.”
Rosberg set the best time in morning practice, in Hamilton’s absence, but struggled on the softer tire in the afternoon. He struggled even more with the weather. He has had so much trouble with sweat getting in his eyes that he has had to call upon his old plan of using a women’s sanitary towel on his forehead when driving.
Track temperatures soared past 60 degrees (140 F), hotter than at any circuit last year, and literally hot enough to fry an egg.
”The conditions are really crazy out there,” Rosberg said. ”The temperatures are really unbelievable.”
The heat contributed to high levels of tire degradation, which looms as a key factor in Sunday’s race. Pirelli boss Paul Hembery said he anticipated at least two, and perhaps three, pit-stops in the race, unlike the one in Australia.
Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat was fourth quickest, but he and teammate Daniel Ricciardo (10th) suffered yet more problems with their Renault engine.
On the positive side, Ricciardo said ”the bulk of the drivability issues we had in Melbourne are a lot better now,” and Kvyat’s time was half a second off Hamilton’s, which represented a big step forward from Australia.
Williams drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa were fifth and sixth, ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, Toro Rosso’s 17-year-old Max Verstappen, and Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.
Fernando Alonso made his first appearance in his second stint at McLaren, having skipped the opening race due to lingering effects from a preseason crash. The good news was he edged teammate Jenson Button, but the bad news was they were down in 16th and 17th as the team struggles with new engine partner Honda.
”We are a long way away from where we need to be, and it’s not a positive change,” a frustrated Button barked down the team radio.
The Manor team, which did not even get on track in the season opener in Australia as it ran out of time to prepare its cars and computer systems, also made a belated season debut. Will Stevens was almost six seconds slower than Hamilton, and Roberto Mehri was 7.5 seconds off the best time, but the team did enough to indicate it might be within seven percent of Saturday’s pole team, and be able to race on Sunday.
”On what has essentially been a shakedown and practice day – which the other teams completed a couple of months ago – we’ve achieved 34 laps of reliable running and that is a really good effort when one considers the problems teams typically encounter on the opening day of running a car,” team principal John Booth said. ”We were also encouraged by our early pace in relation to the 107 percent rule.”