Webber sweeps day one at Sepang

Mark Webber bolstered his dented confidence with a day of consummate front-running in Malaysia. But the Aussie will know that, with McLaren and team-mate Sebastian Vettel snapping at his heels, a lot can still happen at Sepang.

Webber also paced the opening session on home soil in Melbourne a fortnight ago, but was denied a shot at top spot thereafter, and ended the weekend wondering if his car was up to scratch as he trailed in only fifth overall in the race. Heading to Malaysia not knowing if whatever problem had ailed him had been rectified, the Australian will have been happy to set the pace in both free practice sessions, the first by a whopping 1.6secs before McLaren closed the gap to just 0.005secs in the afternoon session.

Jenson Button, who topped the second session in Melbourne, proved to be Red Bull’s closest rival, posting the fastest times in sectors one and two en route to second fastest time, with McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton just over a tenth further back. Looming behind both silver cars, however, was Australian GP winner Vettel, who lapped just 0.08secs off third place having hauled himself up the order in the later session. Before lunch, the German had been restricted to an unrepresentative 17th spot as he concentrated on evaluating Red Bull’s KERS system and did not use the various option tyres on offer.

Michael Schumacher rounded out the top five for Mercedes, but was a full second slower than his countryman, and 1.2secs off Webber’s ultimate pacesetting effort of 1min 36.876secs. The seven-time world champion did, however, get the best of team-mate Nico Rosberg in both sessions, with the younger German seventh on the combined timesheets, separated from Schumacher by Ferrari’s Felipe Massa.

Ferrari was again unable to counter the pace of either Red Bull or McLaren, with Fernando Alonso another couple of spots further back, denied eighth place by Renault’s Nick Heidfeld. The German had missed a lot of the afternoon session before setting his best lap of the day, a 1min 38-570secs effort, as he and team-mate Vitaly Petrov waited for the all-clear on suspension problems that sidelined both in the morning. Petrov was unable to match his team-mate on this occasion, but did recover to 13th overall before the chequered flag.

Jaime Alguersuari rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso, no doubt happy to have shaken off the spectre of reserve driver Daniel Ricciardo, who had shaded him in the morning session. STR team-mate Sebastien Buemi, who made way for the Australian in the early session, ended the day 18th overall, a couple of places ahead of Ricciardo. Alguersuari narrowly edged Pastor Maldonado out of 10th, the Venezuelan having lost track time after spinning into the pit-lane entry barriers. Prior to that, he had enjoyed a prolonged stay in P1, but could not keep up with the pace as times tumbled thereafter.

Maldonado did at least out-pace Williams team-mate Rubens Barrichello, albeit marginally, while Sauber twins Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez completed the top 15 behind Petrov, again ahead of the Force Indias, where Paul di Resta edged Adrian Sutil, despite sitting out the earlier session in favour of test driver Nico Hulkenberg. The young German did a good job to put his car into fourth place in the morning times, but such was the improvement after lunch that that translated into 19th overall.

Timo Glock won the battle of the 2010 newcomers by lapping a second faster than Team Lotus’ Jarno Trulli, while the two HRTs squeezed between the Italian and compatriot Davide Valsecchi, who enjoyed an outing as reserve in the morning session. The man he replaced, Heikki Kovalainen, filled the 27th spot , one ahead of Jerome d’Ambrosio, who did not go out after a front suspension clevis pin failure during the morning session.

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