Friday's practice sessions at Sepang ahead of Sunday's F1 Grand Prix of Malaysia seemed to confirm that McLaren are very much the team to beat once again. But who is best placed to take the fight to their doorstep?

"I think Mercedes AMG look very strong and I don't think we've seen the
best of Red Bull Racing just yet," said McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh of where he expected the threats to come from. "I think we're in for an exciting championship - a number of teams look extremely competitive and we're going to have another close race this weekend."

Red Bull, by their own standards, had something of a quiet day. Nothing went notably wrong for them, and Sebastian Vettel finished the morning session second quickest - but he slipped back to tenth later in the day.

"I would love to be a bit higher up this afternoon, but all in all we had decent running today," said Vettel, adding that there was still a lot of work to get through. "I think we are sliding quite a bit and I would like the car to be a bit more stable," he added, putting it down to the tyre degradation that many teams were struggling with.

"We got through our whole program today, which was good," agreed his team mate Mark Webber. "We have plenty of work to go through regarding our car set up and the tyres."

"We made a good step today, the potential is there, but we need to get to it," added a resolute Vettel. "We will see what we can do tomorrow."

Over at Mercedes, Michael Schumacher looked to be on the right lines after setting the fourth fastest time in the morning and improving to the runners-up spot in the afternoon.

"We had a good day on track today, and I am very happy about the work that has been done since Australia. This has enabled us to achieve reasonably consistent long runs," he said. But he was also remaining cautious about how much of Friday's performance would transfer to qualifying,

"We also know that everyone works on different programmes on Fridays, so I would guess we have not seen everything yet," he warned. "We are very much aware that we should not be too optimistic about today's outcome."

"I feel things are going in the right direction but I don't know where we are compared to the others," concurred Nico Rosberg. "It will be very interesting how we can manage the situation on Sunday."

Morning practice even through up a potential wildcard in the form of Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo, who topped the afternoon timesheets early on until Lewis Hamilton established dominance, but whose time was still good enough to lock down fifth place in the second session of the day.

"I've driven here before in Formula BMW," the Australian driver pointed out. "It helps to have some previous track experience."

By contrast, his team mate Jean-Eric Vergne had to make do with a somewhat more artificial means of getting to grips with Sepang but still made it into the top ten times in the afternoon.

"I've driven the track at the simulator a lot, but they don't have the heating turned to maximum in Milton Keynes!" he pointed out. "Obviously, I am experiencing the heat and humidity for the first time, but I expect to get more used to it as the weekend goes on, so I have no concerns for the race from the physical point of view.

"Overall, I think today went well for us," he continued. "I had a strong long run this afternoon, when my pace was good and Daniel's lap time shows we have a good car."

The question is whether it will be good enough to challenge Red Bull and Mercedes in Saturday's qualifying session, let alone to take a shot at breaking up a looming second consecutive McLaren front row for Sunday's Grand Prix.

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