March 23rd, 2013 (F1Plus / Chris Cameron-Dow) - Reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel has set the fastest time of the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend so far right at the end of FP3, as the teams prepare for this afternoon's qualifying session. Lewis Hamilton was second for Mercedes, followed by the Force India of Adrian Sutil.
The 60-minute Free Practice 3 session was a busy one, with drivers completing runs on both dry tyre compounds and with various fuel loads. Nico Rosberg completed the most laps with 25, getting as much track time in as possible in his Mercedes. For much of the session the times were dominated by Rosberg and his team-mate Lewis Hamilton, but with two minutes remaining Sebastian Vettel put in a fast time of 1:36.435, just over a tenth of a second faster than Kimi Raikkonen's benchmark time of yesterday. Raikkonen himself was a quarter of a second slower than his own Friday time, and finished the session fifth.
The times are closer together than they have been all weekend, indicating that the teams are gradually understanding their cars better and making setup changes that are translating into speed on the track. In particular, Jenson Button's McLaren is visibly faster, looking much more settled under braking and on corner entry. Button was just 0.387 seconds off the pace, a massive improvement from the 1.2 second gap of Friday. It could be that the McLaren simply responded well to the condtiions of FP3, which were a few degrees warmer than FP2, but Button will be hoping his lap times are a true reflection of the pace of the car.
Williams also seem to have found some time overnight. Maldonado was less than a second off the pace in 11th place in FP3, although his team-mate Valtteri Bottas was down in 15th, a further six tenths back. Force India have been showing all weekend that they have produced a strong car. Adrian Sutil's third place in FP3, just 0.153 seconds off the pace, confirms that pace and he will go into qualifying confident of proceeding to Q3 and with the aim of starting the race as high up on the grid as possible.
The top 11 cars are separed by just nine tenths of a second, which makes qualfiying predictions quite difficult. The track continues to evolve, getting faster as more and more rubber is laid on the surface. The relative performance of the cars could therefore continue to change as the qualifying session proceeds this afternoon. As has been seen so often in recent years, the last driver to set a time in Q3 will likely have the best chance of pole position.
Tyres are continuing to be the theme of the weekend. The car that looks after its tyres best while still delivering performance will be in the best shape for tomorrow's race. Kimi Raikkonen won the Australian Grand Prix through tyre management, and there is no reason to believe that tomorrow's Malaysian Grand Prix will be decided any other way. Tyre wear is high in the heat of Malaysia, and the tyres are reacting badly to any abuse from the drivers - a few drivers caused massive flat spots by locking their brakes, and right at the end of the session, the surface of Lewis Hamilton's right front tyre started to come apart after he flat-spotted it heavily.
The issue of tyre locking could have serious consequences in the early phase of the race, especially if a driver damages his tyres on his quickest qualifying lap in Q3 and then has to start the race on the same set.
Full results of FP3:
|1||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing-Renault||1:36.435||20|
|3||15||Adrian Sutil||Force India-Mercedes||1:36.588||0.153||19|
|4||2||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing-Renault||1:36.613||0.178||20|
|6||14||Paul di Resta||Force India-Mercedes||1:36.807||0.372||18|
|21||21||Giedo van der Garde||Caterham-Renault||1:40.209||3.774||18|