Friday in Malaysia threw up more story-lines than Sunday in Australia – but then, that isn’t really much of a feat. It was an exciting day on and off the track. Lewis Hamilton may have claimed top spot on the timesheet, but issues in FP1 exacerbated by a lack of telemetry meant that his programme was heavily truncated. Balance problems affected the performance on both W06’s, while Ferrari appear to pose a genuine threat to the Silver Arrows this weekend. Kimi Raikkonen was particularly impressive today, heading Nico Rosberg on the FP2 standings and throwing down a long run which eclipsed even the front-runners’ pace.
Isn’t it great to see Kimi Raikkonen back on form in 2015. The Finn struggled with an unsuitable car throughout last season and but for a timesheet topping effort in the rather unrepresentative Q1 session in Singapore, he remained anonymous. However, the SF15-T seems to be drawing the best out of the enigmatic Iceman and that includes his receptive feel for the Pirelli rubber.
It was a trait during his time at Lotus. Whilst he was equipped with a tyre-friendly car on his F1 return, Raikkonen always seemed capable of extending stint length and opening up strategic opportunities which were off limits to rivals. Now, in the 2015 Ferrari challenger, it appears that this ability is once again a feature. His long run on the option tyre during FP2 was sublime – as others fell off the cliff of performance, Raikkonen continued to lap consistently and posted no less than eight timed laps all within half a second of each other. By the end of the run, he was clear of the equivalent pace shown by the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg.
However, this pace needs to be met with caution. On today’s performance, it looks as though Ferrari could be realistic challengers to the championship leaders on Sunday, but it will depend on how the Mercedes copes on the prime compound, which is likely to be the race tyre of choice. Most of the balance issues faced by both Rosberg and Hamilton came on the softer compound.
Added hope for Ferrari’s chances is courtesy of the fact that Sebastian Vettel’s day was heavily disrupted. In FP2, the German had his first qualifying simulation run curtailed by a red flag as a result of Roberto Merhi’s spin at Turn 11. Almost as a vote of sympathy, he then promptly lost control in a similar way to the rookie on his second attempt at a flaying lap, flat-spotting his tyres and meaning that he could not use the mediums on his race simulation. Certainly, there is more to come from the four-time champion.
A [Half] Step
Red Bull have been making waves ahead of this weekend and today’s on and off track stories have provided some hope for improvements to what has been a heavily under-performing RB11. Daniil Kvyat managed to secure a respectable P4 on the timesheet in the afternoon and while Daniel Ricciardo continued to languish, it was due to another Friday of reliability concerns for the Aussie.
However, there may be a reprieve on its way to Red Bull and Renault. The teams have reportedly been negotiating the possibility of raising the powerunit limit from four for the season, to 2014’s allowance of five. This would be of particular benefit to Ricciardo who lost his first unit after just nine laps of practice in Melbourne. The policy would require the unanimous approval of teams and while unanimity is notoriously hard to achieve, in this scenario, the terms would surely benefit all concerned and therefore, a raised ceiling could make its passage.
Meanwhile, Cyril Abiteboul was a part of today’s FIA team personnel press conference, and sat alongside Christian Horner. The atmosphere was a touch frosty between the two parties and the Renault Sport representative did comment on the outfit’s undecided stance regarding their future in the sport. It seems that they could potentially enter negotiations to buy Toro Rosso, but would not do so while their powertrain performance remained a priority. Their possible exit from the sport was also alluded to.
Tight Midfield Scrap
Perhaps the most exciting battle pack of the weekend is to come courtesy of the midfield runners, as Toro Rosso, Sauber and Force India seem to be closely matched. Red Bull appear to have made a step forward and therefore, look likely to be clear of this particular fight, while I anticipate that Lotus have been sandbagging their way through the programme, (as they jumped from bodywork failure on Maldonado’s car to gearbox problems for Grosjean.) This explanation for Lotus’ lack of headline runs today makes sense, as Matt Carter in today’s presser acknowledged the intention to join the Ferrari and Williams duel.
It will be fascinating to see how Felipe Nasr builds upon his outstanding debut in Australia. The Brazilian was resigned to the pit wall for the first session of the day, as Raffaele Marciello earned his maiden outing at a race weekend. However, I doubt this will hold Felipe back, considering that the first session was also lost in Melbourne.
Meanwhile, the rookie double act at STR was again imperious, as Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen worked through their programmes, resisting the temptation to wander off course and take the scenic route. This was an option taken by many of the grid’s most seasoned figures, as high winds and high degradation made the magnetism of the grass that little bit harder to resist.
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:40.124
2 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 0.373
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.861
4 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1.419
5 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1.472
6 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1.663
7 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1.679
8 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1.758
9 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1.931
10 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1.940
11 Felipe Massa Williams 1.979
12 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 2.443
13 Raffaele Marciello Sauber 2.497
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren 2.761
15 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 2.769
16 Sergio Perez Force India 2.930
17 Jenson Button McLaren 2.976
18 Will Stevens Manor 6.562
19 Roberto Merhi Manor 7.559
20 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:39.790
2 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 0.373
3 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 0.428
4 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 0.556
5 Valtteri Bottas Williams 0.660
6 Felipe Massa Williams 0.770
7 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.862
8 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1.430
9 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1.471
10 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 2.009
11 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 2.087
12 Felipe Nasr Sauber 2.198
13 Sergio Perez Force India 2.452
14 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 2.501
15 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 2.540
16 Fernando Alonso McLaren 2.716
17 Jenson Button McLaren 2.847
18 Romain Grosjean Lotus 3.158
19 Will Stevens Manor 5.914
20 Roberto Merhi Manor 7.439