Sebastian Vettel led a closely fought final practice session ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix with just half a second covering the top nine drivers across six different teams. The reigning world champion was a tenth clear of Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil and his teammate Mark Webber but no team appears to have any great advantage heading into qualifying.
The Red Bulls were among the more active cars early in the session as the team continued their efforts to get to the bottom of Pirelli’s hard tyres, running on a heavy fuel load, and by the time their focus switched to qualifying, Vettel and Webber were at the bottom of the leaderboard.
The top of it was a Mercedes-dominated zone with Lewis Hamilton setting the pace on prime tyres, setting a 1:37.527. Adrian Sutil slotted in 0.014s behind before Nico Rosberg lowered the benchmark by half a second on options. The German was the first to make that change with McLaren only just starting their hard tyre run at the halfway stage in the session and Jenson Button gave them cause for cautious optimism by splitting the Mercedes’, setting the quickest lap on hard tyres in the process.
The option tyre runs came thick and fast with Hamilton the next to show his hand, pulling out a three tenth lead over his teammate, before Mark Webber fired the first shot from Red Bull, matching the Briton in the mid-1:36s. Adrian Sutil managed to squeeze in between the pair, confirming Force India’s superb pace, while Jenson Button continued to improve in the McLaren by breaking into the 1:36s himself.
Vettel would ultimately top the session though with a 1:36.435 three minutes from time while Hamilton, Sutil and Webber completed the top four. Hamilton finished his session with a delaminated front right tyre after a heavy lock-up on his final run. Kimi Raikkonen’s morning was in stark contrast to those that have preceded it as Lotus struggled to get the best out of their E21 in hotter track conditions, Raikkonen admitting himself that he “didn’t understand how the car could change so much.” Even so, he dragged it up to fifth by the chequered flag, edging British duo Paul Di Resta and Jenson Button back into sixth and seventh.
Felipe Massa was the leading Ferrari driver in eighth on a quiet morning for the Scuderia with Nico Rosberg splitting the Brazilian from teammate Fernando Alonso in tenth. Pastor Maldonado was the last driver within a second of Vettel in eleventh although twelfth placed Sergio Perez might have been able to join that pack had he not being held up by Jules Bianchi.
Nico Hulkenberg was thirteenth ahead of Romain Grosjean who was unable to get a clear run in on the option tyres while Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez completed the top sixteen, something that may be significant heading into qualifying. The six drivers at most danger of Q1 elimination look to those from Toro Rosso, Caterham and Marussia with all two seconds or more off the pace.