Nico Rosberg was the quickest man on Friday as Mercedes led both Friday practice sessions at the Malaysian GP.
The German posted a 1:39.909 in the afternoon on the option tyres to lead what was a much closer battle at the front than most had predicted.
His team-mate Lewis Hamilton had led the first 90 minute session which was all about getting to grips with the new challenges offered around one of the best circuits on the calendar for testing every part of these new 2014 cars.
This was proven by several drivers spinning, including Hamilton, however, as the first rubber began to be laid on the racing line times did improve with the 2008 champion leading Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and Nico Rosberg rounding out the top three.
Lotus endured more problems with neither Romain Grosjean or Pastor Maldonado setting a time as reliability again held the Enstone team back.
The second session was much more productive and representative with drivers completing qualifying and race simulations as forecast rain held off.
Though most thought cooling would be the buzzword it was the topic of tyres was much more in focus as the heat, high-speed turns and a more abrasive surface at Sepang put a much greater workload through the Pirelli P Zeros.
The difference between the two compounds – hard and medium – over a single lap looked to be between half and a full second however over the race duration, as you would expect, the softer medium tyre offers greater speed but less durability.
As the white-striped rubber made its first appearance in the second session it was Nico Rosberg who led times with a 1:39.909, however, unlike the race in Australia, the Mercedes faced much stiffer competition with three other teams posting fastest times within two tenths of Rosberg’s benchmark.
Kimi Raikkonen proved his second place earlier in the day was no fluke by repeating the position in the afternoon for Ferrari. The Finn was a mere .035 slower than the Mercedes with Sebastian Vettel returning to the front for Red Bull having also broken the 1:40 barrier.
Lewis Hamilton was down in fourth with Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo still within four tenths than the lead Mercedes of Rosberg.
A bigger gap emerged to the first McLaren of Jenson Button with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg's Force India all lapping in the 1:40.6 bracket and completed the top 10 order.
Lotus’s poor day continued as gearbox trouble kept Romain Grosjean in the garage for much of the afternoon and even a late attempt to make up for lost time was also blighted by the same transmission issue.
Sauber continued to disappoint with both Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez quite some way from making the top 10 places. However the Swiss team have little to worry about behind with a two second advantage over Marussia as Max Chilton again beat Jules Bianchi.
Caterham’s troubles continued with Marcus Ericsson a long way behind in last and Kamui Kobayashi was left stuck in the pits with reliability woes.
The final half of the session was handed over to a race simulation as the teams compared tyre compounds and worked out an optimum strategy.
With degradation proving quite high this appeared to certainly hamper the usually tyre-hungry Mercedes more than their nearest rivals.
As Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams managed to achieve the high-teens in laps on the softer tyre, Mercedes were seemingly struggling just 12-14 laps in to their stints.
Providing the weather behaves most foresee a three-stop strategy on Sunday though those who are kinder to the Pirellis may attempt a faster two-stop race.
Certainly beating the Mercedes on outright speed looks unlikely therefore I predict the four teams, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Red Bull, who will likely be battling for the spots on the podium, will take the two-stop approach.
As the track continued to rubber in mistakes became fewer and further between but the decrease in downforce allied to the greater torque is certainly making the Sepang circuit a greater challenge than before.
This was proven late on by Ricciardo who, on his final lap of the day, took a detour off the track through turn 10 which in recent years has been merely a short acceleration zone between the hairpin of nine and the right at turn 11.
Certainly from the evidence of Friday many teams have made big gains in the two weeks since Australia and with so many variables for teams and drivers to consider the rest of the weekend is set to be fascinating.
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