Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing showed brilliant pace early on in the last Formula 1 weekend in Malaysia, topping the timing boards by a considerable distance in the first Free Practice session.
In difficult conditions, Verstappen’s time of a 1:48.962s was fastest by seven tenths, ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo and a further seven-tenths ahead of McLaren-Honda F1 Team‘s Fernando Alonso.
The first 30 minutes saw no running whatsoever, as rain cascaded down at the Sepang International Circuit; with officials delaying the start of the session, and when the first cars did venture out under a continuously fine drizzle for their installation lap, all sported the full wet tyres, with Alonso testing a new haircut under his helmet and the impending halo on his McLaren.
Yet that wasn’t the most eye-catching feature, given Scuderia Ferrari‘s newly sculpted air intake and an interesting appendage on the side of Charles Leclerc‘s Sauber F1 Team machine, believed to be nothing more than an intricate thermal camera.
With 40 minutes of the session remaining, Esteban Ocon gave everyone the first glimpse of intermediate tyres, yet only to come straight back into the pits, and with the track conditions still proving to be perilously greasy, a few seconds behind team-mate Ocon, Sergio Pérez slithered and wiggled his way round on the same compound.
The first lap in relative anger came from Ricciardo, a conservative 1:55.601s soon bettered by Sebastian Vettel by a shade over a second. However on his second attempt, Ricciardo resumed his position at the top of the timing screens.
Elsewhere on track, Nico Hülkenberg‘s deputy Sergey Sirotkin had a difficult start to his weekend, spinning his Renault Sport Formula 1 Team machine at Turn 2 – luckily staying on the tarmac and gaining no damage. There were also minor excursions for Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein, both in the slippery second sector.
Red Bull proved to be the strongest in the early runs, Ricciardo and Verstappen fighting over first , with the two Ferraris in third and fourth, Vettel ahead of Kimi Räikkönen and the two Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team drivers, Lewis Hamilton ahead of Valtteri Bottas, who were split by the sixth placed Perez.
Having shown a bullish attitude in the build up, Lance Stroll proved his pace in the wet once again, moving as high as fourth as the order shifted, but the other side of the Williams garage told a different story – Felipe Massa sidelined by a hydraulics issue, failing to set a time and only recording a mere three laps.
Due to the sparsity of wet weather tyres available to the teams, that may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Brazilian.
As the track dried, times inevitably began to fall – Ricciardo reasserting his and Red Bull’s speed, a 1:49.719s quickest by over a second from Verstappen, and over two seconds quicker by the now third Bottas.
With just over five minutes to go, Verstappen bettered Ricciardo’s time by seven tenths, whilst Hamilton improved to fourth after a steady start to his weekend, behind an out of place Alonso.
The best of the debutants on show proved to be Pierre Gasly in the Scuderia Toro Rosso, ending the session in a very credible ninth, ahead of both Renaults and over two seconds faster than Sean Gelael, driving in this session in place of Carlos Sainz Jr, in the other Toro Rosso.
Sirotkin rounded out the top ten, edging out Jolyon Palmer in the other Renault and Stoffel Vandoorne‘s McLaren, with Ocon, Gelael, Perez, Leclerc, Wehrlein, Romain Grosjean, Antonio Giovinazzi and Massa rounding out the times.
[table id=2532 /]