By Abhishek Takle
SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel enjoyed the perfect start to his Malaysian Grand Prix weekend with the German ending the opening day of practice fastest as title rival Lewis Hamilton struggled.
The four-times world champion, who crashed out on the opening lap of the last race in Singapore and fell to 28 points behind his Mercedes rival, set the pace with a time of one minute 31.261 seconds ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
The lap, the fastest-ever around the Sepang circuit, was set in the afternoon session which was brought to an early halt after a loose drain cover caused a heavy crash for Romain Grosjean.
“This morning we had a bit of mixed conditions and there was not so much running,” said Vettel who was fourth in the rain-hit opening session.
“This afternoon it was better and the cars seemed to be quite ok right from the beginning of the session.
“We have a good car and it’s up to us to make it work in all conditions.” Hamilton, meanwhile, was only sixth fastest in the afternoon, as he had been in the first session, ahead of team mate Valtteri Bottas, with both Mercedes drivers reporting a general lack of grip.
His caution in not taking the lucky break he was handed in Singapore for granted seemed well-founded with team boss Toto Wolff saying the Brackley-based team’s car had a “fundamental issue”.
“It’s been a very difficult day,” said Hamilton.
“I’ve been struggling with the car today, so we have to review and try to understand where we have gone wrong with the balance.”
Hamilton’s struggles will have boosted Vettel’s hopes of clawing back ground on his rival in the title race.
Even then he faces an uphill task, with the German needing to win four of the remaining six races simply to draw level with Hamilton if the triple champion finishes second in them all.
Daniel Ricciardo, who led a one-two with team mate Max Verstappen in last year’s Malaysian race, ended the day third fastest ahead of the Dutchman. Verstappen, who turns 20 on Saturday, had ended Friday’s opening rain-hit session fastest ahead of the Australian.
Frenchman Pierre Gasly, making his Formula One debut this weekend after being drafted in as a replacement for under-performing Russian Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso, was 15th fastest.
The 21-year-old, being evaluated as a permanent replacement for Renault-bound Carlos Sainz for next season, outpaced the Spaniard who was 16th.
Neither of Friday’s two sessions ran to their full 90-minute length.
The morning session was delayed by half an hour due to a tropical downpour that lashed the track minutes before its scheduled start.
Grosjean’s crash in the afternoon brought out the red flags with 22 minutes of the session left.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)