• Lewis Hamilton fastest in stifling heat of Sepang
• McLarens turn the heat on struggling Red Bull
The Malaysian Grand Prix can be like an exceedingly noisy Turkish bath. Even if the bucketing rain does not get you – and if it does the race can be stopped, as was the case in 2009 – then the intense heat and humidity certainly will.
If that makes it tough for spectators you can imagine how it feels for the drivers, locked in their metal straitjackets for an hour and a half.
“For all of us this is one of the toughest races and it’s the humidity more than anything else,” said last week’s race winner in Melbourne, Jenson Button, who was declared the victor when the race was stopped here three years ago.
“I think most drivers are used to training hard, and training for an hour and a half isn’t an issue. But it’s the humidity here that is tough for everyone. When you get on to the straight you can’t breathe. That’s normally a rest for us, on the straight, when we just change gears and play around with a few switches.
“But here you don’t get that luxury because you can’t breathe. It’s so hot, the air, coming into the car, so it’s very difficult. If you’re as relaxed as you can possibly be it helps you a lot in the race.”
Button reckons he loses about three kilos of weight in a race at Sepang. “Some people lose even more. That’s quite a lot of fluid you sweat out of your body. Some lose even more.
“I think everyone will be fine. The cars are a lot easier to drive than they used to be – in the race, if not in qualifying – because of the fuel load.
“But it’s still tough because of the heat. A lot of people do physical activity outside to get used to the humidity. But for Jean-Eric Vergne and others who haven’t been here before it’s such a shock, and it hits you when you walk out of the airport.”
In theory, McLaren’s advantage over Red Bull should be even more profound than it was a week ago. Sepang is very different to Australia’s street circuit but from what we’ve seen there and in testing in Spain, the McLaren seemed better suited to the sort of high-speed corners we will see here.
Then there is the fact that McLaren were driving to conserve their low fuel levels in Melbourne, suggesting they can go even quicker here. Button does not buy that line of reasoning. “I think maybe a little too much was made out of saving fuel in Melbourne. Obviously we were saving a bit of fuel but the reason for doing that was because we started with less fuel. So we were quicker because of that.”
This is a race that Button relishes, despite its challenges, and he was second last year in addition to his 2009 victory. “It’s more of a high-speed circuit [than Melbourne], there are some fantastic sweeping corners here and, if the car’s working properly, it’s a real joy to drive.
“It’s one of the toughest circuits on the calendar because there’s a real range of corners, cambers, a couple of blind apexes and a little bit of gradient. If the car’s working against you, then it becomes painful, but when it’s all switched on, it’s just a great, great circuit to drive.”
On Friday, though, it was Button’s team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, who was dominant, topping both morning and afternoon practice sessions.
Hamilton said afterwards: “It was a good day for me, I was quite happy with the balance of the car. I’ve made some changes since the last race but obviously it can always be better.
“I had a different wing on for the last race which I hadn’t used for a year. I thought it would be better but in high-speed corners it was too much for the race. In qualifying it was good but I made a step backwards in the race.”
Button had an oil leakage problem in Friday morning’s run and had to content himself with ninth position. But he was more his old self in the afternoon, when he set the third fastest time.
The McLarens were split by Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, and with Nico Rosberg fourth (he had been third in the morning) the German car is looking in good shape.
We said that in Australia, though, where a strong Saturday was followed by an anticlimactic race day as their old problem of high tyre degradation returned. Schumacher, however, was ultimately forced out of the race with gearbox trouble.
Red Bull were again off the pace. But not as much as poor Ferrari, who may struggle here even more than they did in Melbourne. Fernando Alonso was 15th and sixth in the two sessions, Felipe Massa 13th and 16th. The famous prancing horse is likely to be flat-footed once more here on Sunday.
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