Lewis Hamilton is confident that the chasing pack is closing in on early F1 2011 pace-setters Red Bull Racing, after lapping barely a tenth of a second shy of Mark Webber's benchmark on the opening day of practice for this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.

Hamilton was actually better-placed in the morning session - when he posted the second-quickest time - but whilst he slipped behind McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Jenson Button to third position in the afternoon, he narrowed the deficit separating him from Webber's Red Bull from more than 1.6 seconds to just over a tenth.

Having already overcome the odds once this season with his wholly unanticipated charge to the runner-up spoils in the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne a fortnight ago, it is clear that the 2008 world champion is firmly intent on doing so again.

"Today has been interesting," Hamilton acknowledged. "We seem reasonably close to the top of the timesheets - and I think we've made some positive steps with the set-up of the car. We've still got time to find, but it's been a constructive day.

"The track conditions are massively different compared with the cold conditions we experienced in Australia, so the tyres don't last as long. Maybe Sunday will see a three-stop race. I think the bunch of teams at the front is tightening, so it could be a good race. I hope we're also closer to the front than we were in the last race, but we'll have to wait and see."

Although he stated earlier this week that he didn't expect 'any shake-ups at Sepang', that it would be 'very tough to compete with the Ferraris and the Red Bulls' and that downforce - of which Red Bull's RB7 is king - as well as reliability would be key, the 26-year-old now concedes that the traditional pecking order could be turned completely on its head by the famously unpredictable Malaysian weather and stifling humidity.

"Sepang puts on a pretty good race," he affirmed, describing the fans as some of the most welcoming on the calendar. "It's probably one of the most physical grands prix of the year due to the humidity - it's almost 100 per cent humidity there - the race is quite long and there are a lot of high-speed corners, so you feel a lot of G-forces. It's quite a long circuit as well, and racing in that climate is incredibly tough.

"In 2007, my drinks machine stopped working there and I lost four kilos in the race, so I was destroyed afterwards! It's probably one of the most mentally draining [races], and the preparation is even more crucial for this grand prix.

"When it rains at Sepang, it properly rains, too - it's like nowhere else! It literally is a tropical thunderstorm with lightning. You see it coming, and it starts over one part of the circuit, so one half will be wet and the other half will be dry! In one of the races we had there it was incredible, and it flooded pretty much the whole circuit. There were rivers going across the track, and the car just does not go well in those conditions, especially when you start with a dry set-up.

"When it rains, usually you need to change the car and raise the set-up, but [when it happens during the race] you can't. It doesn't let the airflow continue under the car, so it gets blocked and you're just aquaplaning and sliding everywhere. It's very, very tough.

"The great thing about Sepang, though, is that you have long straights and great opportunities for overtaking; it's a great race for people to watch and a great race for drivers to participate in, because you have quite a lot of opportunity if you're not at the front to make some moves and have some fun!

"Every year, you try to pick up points in every grand prix, [but] there are so many things that come into play. I would love to be able to have a strong first part of the season, because generally I get stronger over the second half, and we do as a team as well. That would mean we'd have a great opportunity and a greater chance of winning the championship."

That is palpably the goal, too, of McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who contends that the Woking-based outfit's MP4-26 is nearly there in terms of extracting its full potential this weekend - and who is hopeful that Hamilton and Button might be able to apply the pressure on Red Bull around a circuit whose characteristics should theoretically suit Adrian Newey's RB7 down to the ground.

"Today we made good progress," the Englishman confirmed, "especially when you consider that we were conducting our first high-temperature runs on the new Pirelli tyres. In this morning's session, both Lewis and Jenson expressed the view that our car was somewhat lacking in balance, but by this afternoon our engineers had worked hard to make the relevant improvements and the result was that both drivers were much happier with the 'feel' of their cars.

"As a consequence, both of them achieved good pace over both short runs and long runs - but we still believe there's a bit more pace in the cars to 'unlock' this weekend, and we fully intend to work as hard as possible to do just that over the next two days."

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i THIN RED BULL has still an advantage, just Hamilton make thing differnt. he is fantastic driver to watch