The HP sauce bottle and Marmite jar are reassuring symbols of a Williams media breakfast – a Friday custom whose traditional British overtones contrast with the oppressive warmth outside.
The Sepang International Circuit’s grandstands are thinly populated when the opening free practice session commences soon afterwards. I’ve always wondered about the Malaysian GP’s sustainability, although the present contract runs until 2015: a few years ago I tracked a stream of comments on a regional newspaper website, wherein cash-strapped locals discussed the best places to climb the track’s perimeter fencing and thereby avoid having to pay. Had this been Monza, they’d simply have used wire-cutters.
There is evidence of a significant tourist element among the select gathering – including a few replica football shirts (not the usual British brands that percolate, but Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town and thus worn by proper fans).
Initially there isn’t a great deal for anybody to watch. Following an installation lap or two, the track remains largely silent for more than half an hour during the opening free practice. Restricting each weekend’s tyre allocation might help to contain costs, but it can also have a detrimental impact on the show – particularly at circuits that take a high toll on rubber. This one, for instance. There is a moment of levity towards the session’s end, when Adrian Sutil’s race engineer instructs his charge to avoid the kerbs. The German thinks he’s being told not to use KERS. “No,” comes back the message, “kerbs, the things by the edge of the track.”
The second session confirms that the Lotus E21 will be no less brisk here than it was in Australia – on one side of the garage at least, although Romain Grosjean continues to be plagued by a mysterious handling imbalance. Kimi Räikkönen sets fastest time of the day, shading Sebastian Vettel by a couple of hundredths, but a short, sharp shower compromises teams’ scheduled long-run plans. Such interruptions are likely to be a motif for the weekend: the forecast hints at dry mornings, with isolated afternoon downpours a daily possibility. Hardly news in this part of the world, but Sunday’s 4pm start risks casting the sport into the eye of an electric storm.
The first round of the GP2 Series forms part of the support programme – and British driver James Calado (ART) missed top spot by just 0.004s after having to negotiate an awkwardly located rival during his final flier. “That cost me a bit of time,” he said, “but things look OK for tomorrow.” Stefano Coletti (Rapax) thus took his maiden GP2 pole, with Felipe Nasr (Carlin) eight thousandths off the pace in third and less than half a second covering the top half of the grid.
Series returnee Sam Bird initially qualified fifth for the newly formed RUSSIAN TIME team – a decent result given that he was recruited less than a week ago and missed all the pre-season tests. The Englishman ran with heavy fuel during free practice, so his true pace only became apparent during the afternoon. At one stage, he was involved in a controversial incident with Arden driver Johnny Cecotto, who swerved at Bird and forced the Englishman onto the grass. “I got onto the marbles through Turn Six,” Bird said, “and probably impeded him a bit while I was sorting myself out. I tried to get out of his way as quickly as I could, but everybody saw what happened next.” Bird was later penalised three grid positions for the initial obstruction, while Cecotto dropped from 14th to last after having all his times annulled.
Cecotto has a proven turn of speed – and illustrated the point with fine GP2 victories at Monaco and Hockenheim last season. He is also more familiar than most, though, with the route to the stewards’ office.
GP2 is designed to be a finishing school, but some drivers seem never to learn.