Lewis Hamilton and McLaren-Mercedes laid down the gauntlet to Red Bull Racing by turning the tables on their rivals during an overcast final free practice session before qualifying for this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang – in storming to the top of the timesheets to the tune of nearly three tenths of a second.
As has become traditional in FP3, the majority of drivers switched over from the harder compound tyres to the soft towards the end of the session as a flurry of cars all took to the track – and the lap times consequently tumbled. Hamilton set the new benchmark with five minutes remaining, and it was one that would not be beaten.
McLaren is running a revised exhaust package in Kuala Lumpur, and it seems to be working as the Woking-based outfit really takes the fight to early-season pace-setters Red Bull. Mark Webber – who had led the way on Friday – wound up second-quickest at the close of play, in so doing rescuing what had looked to be a desultory session, at one stage of which the Australian had uncharacteristically languished all the way down in 22nd place.
Jenson Button backed team-mate Hamilton up well in third – four tenths adrift of his countryman – with Nick Heidfeld rebounding impressively from Lotus Renault GP's Friday travails [see separate story – click here
] – by infiltrating Red Bull and McLaren's hitherto private battle in fourth.
That placed the experienced German narrowly ahead of defending F1 World Champion and runaway Australian Grand Prix-winner Sebastian Vettel, who complained of issues with his DRS (Drag Reduction System) and ended the session with pieces missing from his car.
Ferrari's double world champion Fernando Alonso wound up sixth overall, almost a full second shy of Hamilton's effort after having leapt to the top of the timing screens himself with ten minutes to go in an F150° Italia that still appears to be lacking balance. Vitaly Petrov confirmed Renault's improvement with the seventh-best time, before there was almost a four-tenths-of-a-second gap back to Alonso's team-mate Felipe Massa in eighth.
Kamui Kobayashi was the leading Sauber in ninth, just ahead of evenly-matched Mercedes Grand Prix duo Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, who seem to have slipped from the pace following their Friday heroics. There was then a tight gaggle of cars comprising Kobayashi's team-mate Sergio Pérez, Adrian Sutil, Pastor Maldonado, Sébastien Buemi, Rubens Barrichello, Jaime Alguersuari and Paul di Resta, who visibly struggled for grip as he spun at both Turn 14 and Turn 15, albeit on both occasions managing to rejoin.
Bringing up the rear, unsurprisingly, are Team Lotus pairing Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli – although the Renault-powered T128 does appear to be rather closer to the habitual midfield runners at Sepang – the Virgins of Jérôme d'Ambrosio and Timo Glock and the Hispania Racing (HRT) entries of Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan, who were the last two drivers to take to the track in FP3, with cooling issues for the Italian preventing him from setting a representative lap time until the 54th minute.
To see the FP3 times in full, click here