SEPANG, Malaysia, April 8, 2011 (AFP) - Red Bull's Mark Webber went quickest in both Malaysian Grand Prix practice sessions on Friday in a dominant display which raised hopes he can erase a disappointing start to the
Webber, fifth two weeks ago in Melbourne, bested McLaren's Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, while his team-mate and 2010 champion Sebastien Vettel focused on testing Red Bull's misfiring Kinetic Energy Regeneration System
Britons Button and Hamilton were second and third quickest on the day, ahead of Vettel -- who improved on 17th in the morning session -- and his much-decorated German compatriot Michael Schumacher in a Mercedes.
The top four were separated by just a quarter of a second, suggesting McLaren have emerged as the main rivals to last year's top team at this early stage of the season.
Vettel spent much of the day checking Red Bull's KERS speed boost, which went unused during his Melbourne win but which is expected to be vital on the long straights of the Sepang circuit, near Kuala Lumpur.
"Obviously there's not much in it," Webber said. "We're all pretty close, give or take a couple of tenths (of a second): who got traffic, who didn't, how their KERS worked. So far, so good, I'm towards the front somewhere." "It's still early days in the weekend. We got some good dry running in, and the car performed well. Obviously it was reliable, which was a nice bonus, so we got to check all the tyres, and also Pirelli's new tyre that they brought here."
Brazilian Felipe Massa was sixth quickest for Ferrari ahead of two more Germans, Nico Rosberg for Mercedes and Nick Heidfeld of Renault, who recovered after a dreadful morning session plagued by mechanical problems.
Both Heidfeld and his Russian team-mate Vitaly Petrov were forced out of the action as Renault brought their cars in for intense inspections of their braking and suspension systems.
Ferrari's two-time world champion Fernando Alonso was back in ninth place ahead of fellow Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari of Toro Rosso. "I am not expecting miracles -- it is going to be very difficult for us here," warned Alonso, who finished fourth in Melbourne.
Webber's fastest lap was one minute and 36.876 seconds around Sepang, where tyre-wear and possible heavy rainstorms are likely to be major factors in Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race.
Seven-time champion Schumacher, 42, showed on Thursday evening that he was not worried by the rain by lapping the circuit during a storm -- on a pair of roller skates.
At the back end of the field, the struggling Hispania team picked up some momentum after failing to qualify for the Australian Grand Prix. Indian driver Narain Karthikeyan climbed to 18th before slipping back to 21st fastest, while team-mate Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi was one place further back.
The afternoon session was punctuated by a crash involving Venezuelan rookie Pastor Maldonado, who slid off across the grass at the pit entry road and went into the barriers in his Williams. He had been fastest at one stage in the morning and ended the day 11th, just ahead of his team-mate and fellow Latin American veteran Brazilian Rubens
Renault also looked promisingly strong in the morning when Heidfeld briefly set the pace before a dramatic mechanical failure saw his front right wheel lock up. Team-mate Petrov, who was a spectacular third in Australia, then suffered a
left front-wheel problem and flew off into the gravel at turn nine.
These incidents were then followed by the sight of Virgin's Belgian rookie Jerome d'Ambrosio suffering a suspension failure at the final corner. It was a major spectacle as his system appeared to explode, but he survived unhurt.
See the Malaysia GP Practice Friday Practice Results:
|4||15||Nico Hulkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||1:40.377||2.726||23|
|11||14||Adrian Sutil||Force India-Mercedes||1:40.734||3.083||21|
|16||15||Paul di Resta||Force India-Mercedes||1:39.625||2.749||31|
|17||14||Adrian Sutil||Force India-Mercedes||1:39.809||2.933||28|
|24||25||Jerome d'Ambrosio||Virgin-Cosworth||No time||0|