With Friday running at the Sepang circuit complete we’ve been taking a look at the teams’ and drivers’ performances, hypothesising on qualifying and occasionally letting our minds wonder. Here, ahead of of what promises to be a flight in to the unknown on the Pirelli tyres, is our practice analysis.

Red Bull

It was business as usual for the pace-setting world champions, who topped both FP1 and FP2 and head in to tomorrow’s qualifying session odds-on to take pole. It was everyone’s favourite nearly man Mark Webber who did the job today, pacing the morning session by a whopping 1.6 seconds before edging Jenson Button by 0.005 in the afternoon. Sebastian Vettel, however, will almost certainly be right up there in qualifying and probably remains favourite to take a second successive Malaysian Grand Prix victory.

In other news the team are yet to decide whether they will run KERS in Sunday’s race, with a decision set to be made later today. They ran with the system in practice and were happy with its performance but are yet to be convinced that it is essential for the race.

Photo: Red Bull/Clive Mason/Getty Images

McLaren

McLaren continue to defy pre-season expectations by proving to be Red Bull’s main challengers, with Lewis Hamilton P2 in the first session and Jenson Button second to Mark Webber in FP2. The 2009 champ was just 0.005s shy of the Aussie in the afternoon, and though getting that close to the Red Bulls in qualy may be a task this is undoubtedly a positive position for McLaren to be in. Splitting the Renault-powered cars would be cause for celebration, but locking out the second row seems a sensible and very achievable target. If they do that and take home a good haul of points from the race they’ll be very much on the right track heading to China and then on to Europe.

Ferrari

Was everyone at testing confusing the McLaren with the Ferrari? Having been told that the Scuderia would provide Red Bull’s most potent challenge with the Woking-based squad all at sea we’ve now got a situation approaching the reverse. Okay, so it’s not crisis time for the Italian outfit yet, but their pace certainly isn’t what we’d expected. When the usually positive Fernando Alonso is admitting that “we weren’t too fast today and we are not expecting miracles for tomorrow” you know something isn’t right. He was ninth in both sessions whilst team-mate Felipe Massa recorded two sixths places. Must do better.

Mercedes

After a nightmare Australian Grand Prix things look decidely rosier at Mercedes today, with Michael Schumacher looking strangely on the ball. The seven-time champion was P3 in the first session and fifth in the second, with only the pace-setting Red Bulls and McLarens getting the better of him. Nico ‘I ♥ Sepang’ Rosberg meanwhile was tenth in the morning and seventh in the afternoon, completing a promising day for the German marquee. Was Albert Park a blip for them? Unclear, but at this stage they look capable of beating Ferrari tomorrow – and that would be a huge achievement.

Renault

Renault returned to earth with a bump following their superb Australian result, with both cars suffering suspension upright failures in FP1 that cost them a big chunk of crucial tracktime. It’s subsequently been blamed on a faulty material batch, which should at least give them confidence that it won’t recur later in the weekend.

Praise must go to the team, who did a great job to get both cars out for the second session, where Nick Heidfeld posted a strong lap to end the day in the top ten. More Melbourne-esque heroics seem unlikely, but you feel Renault will be disappointed if at least one of their cars doesn’t end qualy in the top ten.

Photo: Lotus Renault GP/Charles Coates/LAT Photographic

Williams

Formula One has now met the real Pastor Maldonado: prodigiously quick but with a tendency for the farcical. That was in full evidence today, as the Venezuelan posted times well in contention with the pace setters before stuffing it in the wall as he entered the pitlane. He’ll rue the lost track time, but on the evidence of today could spring a surprise and make it to Q3 tomorrow.

Team-mate Barrichello meanwhile was quiet, being outpaced by Pastor in both sessions. However the vastly experienced Brazilian takes the brunt of the development work at Williams, and should be at least with Maldonado’s times in qualifying. With a quick but fragile car Williams could well mix with with the big guns on Saturday, but questions remain over their ability to convert that in to a result on Sunday

Force India

We could easily just copy and paste the same thing we said about Force India on the Friday of the Australian Grand prix, but instead we’ll attempt something new(ish). Paul di Resta again outpaced Adrian Sutil, despite again missing FP1 to allow Nico Hulkenberg his go in the car (what exactly is the sense in this? Surely Sutil could sit the session out?) The car is nothing special but it’s also no tugger, so we’d plump for a qualifying result between 14th and 18th.

It’s probably worth noting that Hulkenberg was quick in FP1, setting the fourth fastest time. That’s the sort of performance that gets you promoted to a race seat – we imagine Willi Weber is already pointing this out to Vijay Mallya.

  • Adrian Sutil: FP1: 11th – FP2: 17th – Best: 1m39.809s
  • Paul di Resta: FP1: DNP – FP2: 16th – Best: 1m39.625s
  • Nico Hulkenberg: FP1: 4th – FP2: DNP –  Best: 1m40.377s
Photo: Force India F1 Team Media

Sauber

A quiet day for the Swiss team, something they’ll probably appreciate after the noise of Australia. Kobayashi and Perez were 14th and 18th respectively in FP1, the Japanese driver taking the same position in the second session with his team-mate moving up to 15th. Whether they can repeat the wonders of Albert Park remains to be seen, but you get the feeling a controversy-free weekend would be satisfying in its own right.

Photo: Sauber Media

Toro Rosso

Sometimes, it’s hard to even notice Toro Rosso. Since Sebastian Vettel left at the conclusion of the 2008 campaign the most exciting thing that’s happen to the team was Sebastien Buemi’s front wheels exploding off in practice for last year’s Chinese Grand Prix. Granted that was mega exciting, but you sometimes wonder what the whole thing is about – are Red Bull really going to promote one of these two drivers to the main team?

Anyway, mind wondering aside, STR ran Daniel Ricciardo in FP1 again, the Aussie finishing in p12 a full 0.012s faster than Alguersuari. The Spaniard improved to tenth in FP2 whilst team-mate Buemi floundered in 18th. There’s pace in that car, it just needs extracting. Can either of them do it this weekend? You just never know with the Toro Rosso lads.

  • Sebastien Buemi: FP1: DNP – FP2: 18th – Best: 1m40.115s
  • Jaime Alguersuari: FP1: 13th – FP2: 10th – Best: 1m38.846s
  • Daniel Ricciardo: FP1: 12th – FP2: DNP – Best: 1m40.748s
Photo: Red Bull Media/Clive Mason/Getty Images

Lotus

With Davide Valsecchi replacing Heikki Kovalainen in the car for FP1 and subsequent mechanical problems on the finn’s machine there was limited running for the fastest (err, and only) Finn in F1. He got just four laps in in FP2 to end up bottom of the pile. Valsecchi himself also suffered technical gremLins on his maiden appearance at a grand prix weekend. Jarno Trulli meanwhile was a solid 16th in FP1 but slipped to 20th in the afternoon as traffic apparently hindered his soft tyre laps. Qualifying ahead of the Virgins is the bare minimum expectation for tomorrow.

  • Heikki Kovalainen: FP1: DNP – FP2: 23rd – Best: 1m44.886s
  • Jarno Trulli: FP1: 16th – FP2: 20th – Best: 1m41.620s
  • Davide Valsecchi : FP1: 21st – FP2: DNP – Best: 1m44.054s
Photo: Team Lotus

Hispania

Hispania are up and running. Well, maybe not running – trotting at a gentle pace, perhaps, but they’re definitely moving. Well, sometimes – Tonio Liuzzi stopped out on track during FP2 with electrical problems, but it looks like they’ll qualify for Sunday’s race. Okay, so it’ll be touch and go and will depend largely on how fast Vettel and Webber feel like going, but it’s a definite improvement from Australia. If they do put a car on the starting grid expect team boss Colin Kolles to start shouting about the ‘Miracle in Malaysia’.

Photo: HRT F1 Media

Virgin

Virgin enjoyed some cheer today following a miserable Australian Grand Prix, with Timo Glock outpacing both Lotus cars. However the team’s joy will be tempered somewhat by problems for Jerome d’Ambrosio, who suffered a suspension failure in FP1 that would force him to sit out the entirety of the second session. No one’s suggesting they’ve made a step forward since Australia, but if Virgin (well, Glock) can out-qualify the Lotuses tomorrow the team will be rightly chuffed and a wee bit more positive about the future.

Photo: Marussia Virgin Racing