x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Red Bull's Webber sets early pace, but Button is closing in fast

The Australian's RB7, fitted with the Kers system for the first time, is quickest around Sepang in Friday's practice.

KUALA LUMPUR // The reliability issues that rivals had hoped would hamper Red Bull Racing were nowhere to be seen in Sepang yesterday as Mark Webber topped both practice sessions ahead of tomorrow's Malaysia Grand Prix.

Webber was running with the highly acclaimed Kinetic energy recovery system (Kers), which had proved problematic during Friday practice in Melbourne and was removed from both Red Bull RB7s before Sebastian Vettel's triumphant race.

There were no problems here though as Webber led second-fastest runner Lewis Hamilton by a massive 1.6 seconds in the morning session. However, Webber saw his lead slashed to just 0.005s by Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes' teammate, Jenson Button, in the afternoon and, never a driver to show too much emotion, refused to get over-excited.

"So far, so good. I'm towards the front somewhere," Webber said. "We got some good dry running in, and the car performed well. Obviously it was reliable, which was a nice bonus, so we got to check all the tyres."

With conditions predominantly dry during both winter testing and the first race of the season, the 12 race teams have yet to properly test any of Pirelli's tyres in the wet. That will probably change at the Sepang circuit - while the rain remained in the dark clouds during yesterday's two sessions, it is almost inevitable the wet stuff will make an appearance before the weekend is over.

Fernando Alonso, the Ferrari driver, is certainly hoping so. The Spaniard was downbeat after finishing ninth fastest yesterday afternoon, but took encouragement from Malaysia's unpredictable weather.

"We'll see tomorrow where we are, but we weren't too fast and we are not expecting miracles," Alonso said. "I'm aware that we are lacking speed - the feeling is that they are pretty quick, especially Red Bull, so fighting for [a] pole is difficult.

"On a track like this, with such variable weather and with tyre degradation being what it is, there will be a lot of factors in the fight for the top places, and just being quickest will not be enough. We'll see what the track conditions are and we'll try to take every opportunity that arises."

Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, was not convinced by Alonso's talk of miracles and said he did not believe "Ferrari have shown their full hand yet", and added that a decision on whether the Red Bulls would run Kers this weekend would be made overnight - although it would come as an almighty surprise if it was not fitted to Webber's and Vettel's cars come tomorrow afternoon.

Horner's counterpart at Hispania Racing, Colin Kolles, appeared bullish after Narain Karthikeyan finished within 107 per cent of Webber's fastest lap. The result means if the Indian can replicate that pace in qualifying, HRT will be allowed to compete for the first time this season.

Both HRT drivers were prohibited from racing in the Australian Grand Prix because of their pace, but Kolles said he was not looking for sympathy.

"If I look backwards and I go into a corner and start to cry, nobody will help me," he said. "It is in the past and we have to move on."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae