Vettel tops shortened Friday practice as Mercedes struggle
Malaysian Grand Prix - Free Practice 2

Vettel tops shortened Friday practice as Mercedes struggle

Sebastian Vettel set the fastest time in second practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix after Mercedes struggled to match title rivals Ferrari on Friday.

The session was cut 20 minutes short after a loose drain cover on the apex of Turn 13 ripped Romain Grosjean's right rear tyre apart and spat him into the barriers at high speed. The drain had come loose moments earlier when Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen went through the corner, leaving it standing proud as Grosjean approached at full speed.

The metal cover tore into Grosjean's tyre, pitching the car into a spin over the gravel trap before a hard impact with the barrier beyond the run off. The session was immediately red flagged, cutting running time by 20 minutes and depriving the teams of more track time after wet weather caused a delayed start to the opening practice session in the morning.

Prior to the drama at Turn 13, Vettel had set a new track record of 1:31.261, 0.604s clear of Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen in second place. Vettel's nearest non-Ferrari rival was Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull -- 0.838s off the pace while holding a 0.010s margin over teammate Max Verstappen in fourth. Verstappen improved on a second lap on used super-softs after a set-up tweak midway through the session unlocked additional pace from his Red Bull.

Both Mercedes drivers reported a lack of grip throughout the session, leaving Lewis Hamilton 1.416s off Vettel and Valtteri Bottas 1.459 off the pace. The pair both spun earlier in the session, with Bottas running wide at Turn 11 and Hamilton losing the rear of his car at Turn 7.

Bottas' mistake appeared to be caused by the Finn taking the wrong line into Turn 11 as he passed Felipe Massa around the outside, resulting in him riding up on the entrance kerb and wide into the gravel trap. Hamilton's spin came after he clobbered the apex of the right-hander at Turn 7, loosening the rear of his car and pitching him into a spin.

The off-track incidents saw Mercedes' run-plan delayed as its two teams of mechanics checked the floors of both cars. By the time the drivers re-emerged, Vettel had set his benchmark of 1:31.261 and it immediately became clear Bottas was not able to match it as he completed the first sector 0.378s slower than the Ferrari. Even in the final sector, which consists mainly of two long straights, the Mercedes drivers were over 0.5s off Ferrari, leaving the world champions scratching their heads ahead of Saturday's qualifying session.

Long runs were limited to a handful of laps before the session was red flagged, but Ferrari appeared to hold a similar -- if not larger -- advantage. If the Italian team can maintain its edge over Mercedes for the rest of the weekend, it could provide Vettel with the perfect opportunity to recover some of the 25 points he lost to Hamilton two weeks ago when he crashed in Singapore.

Such was Mercedes' struggle that Fernando Alonso's McLaren-Honda finished the session ahead of both Hamilton and Bottas in fifth place. A late flying lap on the super-soft tyres secured the position for the two-time world champion, leaving his McLaren higher in the order than the team would usually expect in Friday practice. A repeat in qualifying is unlikely, but Alonso will be pleased with the 0.298s gap over Sergio Perez's Force India in eighth and the 0.496s margin to Nico Hulkenberg's Renault in ninth.

Esteban Ocon rounded off the top ten in the Force India ahead of Jolyon Palmer's Renault, the Williams of Massa and the second McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne. Lance Stroll finished 14th for Williams, 0.424s adrift of teammate Massa, despite hitting a bollard dividing the pit lane entrance and the track early in the session.

On his first full race weekend, Pierre Gasly beat Toro Rosso regular Carlos Sainz by 0.061s, but the overall lack of pace compared to their rivals will be a concern for the junior Red Bull team. The Haas and Sauber drivers made up the bottom four, with Gorsjean's mechanics facing a late night to put his car back together ahead of final practice session on Saturday.

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