Mark Webber sent shivers down the spines of rivals here in Sepang this morning as he lapped his Red Bull RB7 1.665s faster than anyone else. Lewis Hamilton got closest in his McLaren, but his 1m 39.316s best was light years behind Webber’s 1m 37.651s.
A late improvement put Michael Schumacher third for Mercedes on 1m 39.791s, then came a bunch of runners in the 1m 40s. This comprised Nico Hulkenberg, once again taking Paul di Resta’s Force India seat for the opening session, with 1m 40.377s, then Pastor Maldonado who was up there all morning for Williams on 1m 40.443s, late-improving Felipe Massa on 1m 40.453s for Ferrari, Nick Heidfeld on 1m 40.525s for Renault, Rubens Barrichello in the second Williams in 1m 40.581s, Fernando Alonso who had one off-track moment in the second Ferrari on 1m 40.601s, Nico Rosberg in the second Mercedes on 1m 40.646s, Adrian Sutil in 1m 40.734s in the other Force India, the well-matched Toro Rossos of Daniel Ricciardo and Jaime Alguersuari on 1m 40.748s and 1m 40.770s apiece, Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber on 1m 40.872s and Jenson Button’s McLaren in 1m 40.927s. That’s P4 down to P15 – 12 cars – separated by just six-tenths of a second.
Jarno Trulli gave Lotus a major fillip with 16th fastest 1m 41.620s, which put him ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who was obviously not looking for lap times in his Red Bull on 1m 41.627s. Sergio Perez was 18th in the second Sauber on 1m 41.642s, then Timo Glock took his Virgin round in 1m 42.154s for 19th with team mate Jerome D’Ambrosio close on 1m 42.540s. Davide Valsecchi made his official F1 debut in Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus, which he lapped in 1m 44.054s for 21st.
Renault were in the wars. After Heidfeld had set the early pace with that 1m 40.525s, his R31’s right front wheel seized due to a suspected suspension problem and he limped the whole lap back to the pits from which he did not emerge again. Later, Vitaly Petrov’s attempt to better 1m 47.932s was frustrated when his car was pitched off the road in Turn Nine by what at first appeared to be the failure of its front left Pirelli; the Russian, however, suggested that there had perhaps been a brake disc or suspension problem which shattered the wheel and precipitated the tyre explosion. Heidfeld ended the session seventh, with Petrov 24th.
HRT appeared to be in much better shape than they had been in Melbourne, but things soon went wrong after Narain Karthikeyan’s progress was stopped early on by an apparent engine problem on his third lap. Tonio Liuzzi spent much of the session in the garage after his opening run. Subsequently, however, the Italian worked down to 1m 45.228s for 22nd.
There was also drama at the end for D’Ambrosio, whose Virgin lost its right-front wheel under braking for Turn 15 after a suspension failure, pitching the Belgian into the gravel