|© AP Photo/Peter Lim
Kimi Raikkonen is showing his season-opening victory in Australia is no fluke after posting the fastest time in the second practice at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Friday.
The Finn was the surprise winner of the Australian GP last weekend and has won two of the last three races dating to last year. His Lotus was expected to be competitive with the better-funded Red Bulls and Ferraris but not outpace them as he has done so far.
"The weekend will tell us (more) but it's been a good day so far," Lotus technical director James Allison said. "The car seems quite happy here."
The unflappable Raikkonen edged world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull by 0.019 seconds. He also has been helped by the team's admission that it is favouring the Finn over his slower teammate Romain Grosjean, who was sixth on Friday.
"We only have one set of kit and we've chosen to run that with Kimi, and Romain is disadvantaged for that," Allison said. "It's a feature of not having in-season testing that you try to upgrade the cars as fast as you can and generally speaking, that means that you're always going to have one set of kit ahead of the second set, and that almost inevitably means that one driver gets to try it before there is a second one available."
Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso were third and fourth followed by Vettel's teammate, Mark Webber, who was fastest in the first practice session.
It was another disappointing day for McLaren, which has struggled since revamping its race car in the offseason. Sergio Perez, who joined McLaren from Sauber, was 11th followed by 2009 champ Jenson Button in 12th.
"On a dry track it feels better than it did in Melbourne, but even then its pace still isn't there compared with that of the front-running cars," Button said. "We've identified some further improvements that we can make before tomorrow, though, which is encouraging, and it's been a good day in terms of learning."
Button was ninth in Australia, and McLaren sporting director Sam Michael dismissed speculation the team would revert to last year's car.
"It's very hard to make predictions when you are trying to unlock two or three areas in the car," he said. "The past history of McLaren as a group to recover from situations like this is extremely strong and consistent. They have done it before and I don't see any reason why the engineers won't do it again this time."
Lewis Hamilton, who appeared to justify his offseason switch from McLaren to Mercedes with a fifth in Australia, has not shown the same pace in Malaysia, running ninth fastest in both sessions.
The second session took place in overcast conditions, and steady rain briefly hit the Sepang circuit with about 30 minutes remaining. The weather is expected to be a factor in Sunday's race. Sepang, more than any other circuit, has a history of being hit by afternoon showers that are common at this time of year.
Alonso won last year's race only after Sergio Perez ran off the track just as he was attempting to pass the Spaniard in wet conditions after a 51-minute delay for rain.
Alonso finished second in Australia and has expressed confidence that his car will be able to keep pace this weekend with Raikkonen. He seemed happy with his performance on Friday, despite clocking fourth behind his teammate Massa.
"The car worked well in all conditions, and that is very good news for us," Alonso said. "It could rain at any moment, and on a track where tyre degradation is much higher than in Melbourne."
Red Bull, in contrast, has shown little of the confidence that would be expected from a team that has won the last three constructors' championships.
Much of its concerns revolve around the new Pirelli tyres which are degrading quicker than last season. The problem has plagued Red Bull more than other teams, and it blamed the tyres for Vettel's third in Australia.
It had hoped the warmer conditions would help solve the problem but tyres shredded quicker than expected during practice. As a result, Red Bull would likely have to fall back on a three or even four-stop strategy while other teams like Lotus may be able to get by with two stops as they did in Australia.
"We're trying to understand what is going on and what is the sweet spot for these tyres," team principal Christian Horner said.
"I don't think anybody up and down this pit lane fully understands these tyres to be honest. There are so many anomalies that a key aspect to this season will be getting on top of those tyre issues and understanding them."
Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery acknowledged teams saw "high wear rate" on Friday due in part to the high temperatures and abrasive track.
"Nonetheless, degradation stayed within our anticipated parameters," he said. "We have also seen differences in the way that individual teams use the compounds, with the hard compound lasting 15 laps for some teams and 21 laps or more for others. We'll be looking at all the data tonight to establish a more precise picture for qualifying and the race."