On the day when Michael Schumacher began to look a little more like his old self, Lewis Hamilton dominated practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix to keep McLaren ahead of arch-rivals Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari.
But whether that will remain the picture tomorrow, with the Ferraris only seventh and 15th courtesy of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, remains to be seen.
Hamilton was 0.185sec ahead of Nico Rosberg in the morning, 0.266sec ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the afternoon. "Sepang is a very special place," Hamilton said. "It's not a stop-start circuit; it's a flowing, high-speed track which is all about getting the car to flow from one corner to the next. You need lots of rear-end grip, a strong balance and a car that can ride the kerbs well while also conserving the tyres.
"I think we had a good first day today," he added. "I've got a good feeling in the car – it's probably the best feeling I've had around this circuit. Every time I get to a track this year, it always feels light years better than the last time, which is very positive. We're still trying to get a better feeling for the tyres, but we've made some positive first steps.
"This evening, I want to sit down with my engineers and make a couple of changes. We don't yet know where the others are, so we need to keep focusing on our performance, but we're optimistic that we've made a small step forward."
Schumacher felt the same, after lapping much closer to team-mate Rosberg. "I'm quite happy overall with our work today and the practice sessions went very much as we expected," he said. "We did have an issue with the brakes this morning so I didn't start running right away but once we were out on track, I felt we had good pace. However we have to be realistic about our performance here and we might still be lacking a little compared to the front runners. The good thing is that you can play with the lines a bit to find time as the track here is quite wide. But in the end, as usual, we will have to wait and see how qualifying and the weather evolve."
This is the race, however, that Red Bull must win after dominating the first two events this season before suffering with poor reliability. Vettel said he was not 100 per cent happy with his car. "The McLarens and the Mercedes look very quick, Ferrari I think have a decent long run pace so we need to see," the German said, while refusing to speculate on whether he could take pole position for the third time in a row. "We need to see where we are after today and then we set our targets, but for sure hopefully Q3 and then try to finish as high up as we can to start at the front."
Following the spark-plug problem that hampered Vettel in Bahrain and the broken wheel-fixing that forced him out in Australia, there was more bad news for Red Bull yesterday when Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber stopped out on the circuit in the afternoon with an engine failure. "You never want your Fridays disturbed and today it has cost us a lot of track time," Webber said, "but the car felt pretty good. It's never ideal to lose an engine but we did. The car feels good in the quick stuff, but I wouldn't say we have a particular weakness in terms of high-speed and low-speed corners, we are good in both."
Malaysian Grand Prix: Practice times
Malaysian Grand Prix (Sepang): First Practice: 1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1min 34.921secs; 2 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:35.106; 3 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:35.207; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:35.225; 5 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:35.402; 6 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:35.479; 7 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:35.955; 8 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:35.959; 9 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:36.043; 10 S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso 1:36.100; 11 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:36.451; 12 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 1:36.503; 13 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso 1:36.645; 14 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:36.712; 15 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:36.891; 16 P de la Rosa (Sp) Sauber 1:36.899; 17 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:37.802; 18 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:38.278; 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus 1:39.460; 20 T Glock (Ger) Virgin 1:39.755; 21 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin 1:40.159; 22 F Fauzy (Malay) Lotus 1:40.721; 23 B Senna (Br) Hispania 1:41.832; 24 K Chandhok (India) Hispania 1:41.966. Second Practice: 1 Hamilton 1min 34.175sec; 2 Vettel 1:34.441; 3 Rosberg 1:34.443; 4 Button 1:34.538; 5 Schumacher 1:34.674; 6 Kubica 1:35.148; 7 Alonso 1:35.581; 8 Buemi 1:35.660; 9 Petrov 1:35.872; 10 Sutil 1:35.957; 11 Kobayashi 1:36.018; 12 Liuzzi 1:36.221; 13 De la Rosa 1:36.325; 14 Alguersuari 1:36.325; 15 Massa 1:36.602; 16 Barrichello 1:36.813; 17 Hulkenberg 1:37.614; 18 Trulli 1:38.454; 19 Kovalainen 1:38.530; 20 Webber 1:38.786; 21 Glock 1:39.061; 22 Di Grassi 1:39.158; 23 Chandhok 1:41.084; 24 Senna 1:41.481.