SEPANG, Malaysia — Lewis Hamilton fired the latest shot in the close Formula One title fight against Nico Rosberg by edging his Mercedes teammate and setting the fastest time in Friday’s practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Rosberg had bettered Hamilton in every on-track session in the previous race in Singapore en route to a third successive win that saw him reclaim the lead in the drivers’ championship, but Hamilton responded in the steamy conditions at the Sepang International Circuit.
His best lap time of 1 minute, 34.944 seconds was almost a quarter of a second better than that of Rosberg as temperatures on the resurfaced track climbed past 58 degrees (136 F).
It was briefly much hotter than that in pit lane, where a fire engulfed the Renault of Kevin Magnussen, causing the first practice session to be red-flagged.
A fuel leak, which could not be stopped for several minutes, saw the fire repeatedly re-ignite despite the efforts of team mechanics and track marshalls, who doused the car in huge volumes of extinguisher foam.
Magnussen sprang from the car when the flames began to lick at the cockpit, and was unhurt.
Hamilton said it was “a good day today, no issues to report.”
“There’s a lot of data to analyze tonight to make sure we have a good understanding of the tires and of our position relative to the others,” Hamilton said. “Overall a good building block for tomorrow and the rest of the weekend.”
Most drivers were enthusiastic about the resurfaced track, which has made the circuit several seconds faster than last year. A feature is the remodeled final turn; the main overtaking spot on the circuit. It now has a negative camber, dropping lower at the outside, which will enable a variety of passing methods.
It also meant there was very little tire degradation, making two pit stops rather than three the likely optimal strategy.
“The new track surface is really enjoyable to drive,” Rosberg said. “Challenging, but with good grip.”
Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were third and fourth fastest, both within a second of Hamilton’s time, while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was fifth and Force India’s Sergio Perez sixth.
The fastest laps of Hamilton and Rosberg indicated that Saturday’s qualifying session will again likely be a shootout between the two Mercedes drivers. However Ferrari and Red Bull were both enthusiastic about their performance on their long runs, which simulate race pace with heavier fuel loads and long stints on the same tires.
Vettel, who won this race last year in similarly hot conditions, felt the high track temperatures help Ferrari relative to Mercedes.
“Historically we seemed to do well when it’s warm and today was quite warm,” Vettel said. “Our pace wasn’t too bad from what I was told. If that’s the name of the game, that the hot conditions suit us, then it might be a good thing.”
Verstappen, on his 19th birthday, acknowledged that Red Bull was off the pace in qualifying trim, but capable of challenging Mercedes in race conditions.
“I felt there was quite some lap time in the soft,” Verstappen said. “But I was most happy in the long run, it felt like I could do what I wanted with the car, I could throw it into the corner like I wanted to and still the pace was there.”
McLaren driver Fernando Alonso was seventh on the timesheets, but will start from the back of the grid on Sunday due to penalties for installing a newly developed power unit, which he used on Friday.