Former world champion Damon Hill has warned early pace-setters Red Bull Racing that they will not have things all their own way season-long in F1 2011 – despite the team again leading the way during Friday free practice ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.
Concerns were raised after defending title-holder Sebastian Vettel practically ran away and hid in the Australian Grand Prix curtain-raiser in Melbourne just under a fortnight ago, qualifying the best part of a second out-of-reach of any of his rivals and then comfortably pacing himself to a 22-second triumph on race day around the streets of Albert Park.
What's more, with the energy drinks-backed outfit expected to bolt on KERS in Kuala Lumpur – arguably benefitting Vettel and team-mate Mark Webber to the tune of as much as a further half-a-second a lap – some are already forecasting a distinctly one-sided championship battle in sight. Not so fast, argues Hill.
“The first race is usually just a marker,” the 1996 F1 World Champion and current British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) President told The Sun
. “People will catch up, and it definitely won't be plain sailing for Red Bull all the way through the season. I'm sure the gap will close, and it will be more like last season with a handful of guys in the frame well beyond the halfway stage.”
The likes of McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari will certainly be hoping so – but FP1 at Sepang today suggested otherwise, with Webber a staggering 1.6 seconds clear of the chasing pack. However, McLaren duo Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton trimmed that deficit down to next-to-nothing come the end of FP2, with Vettel in similarly close attendance in fourth – and the RBR boys remain cautious about their prospects.
“We look okay, but it's still early days in a race weekend,” urged Webber, who is determined to bounce back in Malaysia following another nightmare on home turf Down Under. “Obviously there's not much in it; we're all pretty close, give-or-take a couple of tenths – who got traffic, who didn't, how their KERS worked... [Ours worked] most of the time. I'm towards the front somewhere.
“[The moveable rear wing] should be better than in Melbourne – we've got a very slow corner opening the lap, then a pretty big braking area into Turn One and plenty of options on the straight. It will definitely be better than in Melbourne. Whether it's enough, remains to be seen.
“We got some dry running in, and the car performed well. It was reliable, which is always a nice bonus. The team ran very well today, both sides of the garage, and we got to check all the tyres, including the new tyre that Pirelli brought here. It's very hot. We need to look at the information we got today, but so far, so good for us. A big night for the guys again tonight, and we'll go from there.”
“We completed quite a lot of laps this morning because of the extra tyres, and this afternoon we did more-or-less what was planned,” concurred Vettel. “We didn't have any big problems, but we got a lot of mileage and took a lot of things on-board. Obviously, tyre wear is different here to Melbourne. I think it's the same for everyone – at least, it is for us. We'll see where we are tomorrow.”