Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen won a back-and-forth battle for FP2 supremacy with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, in a session that trashed previous track records for the Malaysia Grand Prix.
Both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas struggled to find their pace in the Mercedes, before an early end to the session as a result of Haas’ Romain Grosjean crashing out after running over a dislodged drain cover.
Conditions were overcast but dry at Sepang International Circuit, following rainstorms that had battered the morning’s first free practice session. The two Saubers led the way out of pit lane, followed by cars from Toro Rossos, Haas and Ferrari getting straight to work.
Raikkonen set the first flying lap time but Verstappen soon took over control of the times with an impressive 1:32.739s. That was quicker than last year’s pole position lap, with Raikkonen under a tenth back in second.
Vettel soon moved the goalposts again, setting a new track record time of 1:32.456s. That was almost three tenths faster than Verstappen, with Raikkonen third and temporarily garage-bound as mechanics attended to the Ferrari.
It fell to Red Bull to pick up the pace, Ricciardo flying to the top with a blistering time of 1:32.099s. Verstappen looked set to go even faster before making a mess of the final corner. “Unbelievable,” he said over the team radio, adding: “Way too much understeer.”
Verstappen was not alone. Several drivers struggled with braking early in the session. Jolyon Palmer almost made an involuntary dive down pit lane after his Renault locked-up in the final corner. Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas explored the gravel trap in turn 11, and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz followed in his tyre marks shortly afterwards. Lewis Hamilton also hit problems, losing the back-end of his Mercedes into the double turn 7/8 and sliding sideways into the run-off.
Williams Lance Stroll was on the radio complaining about his brakes after running wide. As well as flat-spotting his tyres, he also terminated the bollard marking pit lane entry with extreme prejudice. Marcus Ericsson also locked up in turn 9, sending the Sauber onto the grass. Both Haas drivers were complaining about understeer.
Pierre Gasly had a fiery start to his afternoon when he pulled into the Toro Rosso pit box belching smoke and flame from the back of his car. It’s not the first time the STR12 had done that this season, and the pit crew treated it as a relatively routine matter. Sure enough, the Frenchman quickly returned to the track with no apparent harm done.
Raikkonen was likewise also soon back in the game, and celebrated his return with a lap of 1:31.865s. This latest track record lasted only a few seconds before Vettel thumped in a new claim of 1:31.261s.
However there was no such performance to be found at Mercedes. Even after switching to supersofts for the second half of the session, Hamilton could manage no better than sixth place behind McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. Bottas was one place further backin seventh ahead of a mix of Force India and Renault cars.
The session came to a premature end when Romain Grosjean ran over a drain cover apparently dislodged seconds earlier by Bottas and Raikkonen. The sharp edge shredded the Haas’ right rear wheel and sent the Frenchman spinning into a big impact with the barrier to bring out the red flags. Grosjean was unhurt and spoke to the media after the event, but the session did not restart.