Red Bull Racing banking on Sepang race pace

Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo aren’t ruling out a victory tussle at the Malaysian Grand Prix despite finishing fifth and eighth quickest in Friday free practice.

Verstappen led the Red Bull Racing duo, but the Dutchman was more than one second off Lewis Hamilton’s headline time at the Sepang International Circuit.

Almost four tenths of a second split Ricciardo from his teammate, a space into which Sergio Perez and Fernando Alonso inserted their Force India and McLaren cars.

Mercedes looked untouchable all Friday, with estimates placing the car’s true single-lap advantage at in excess of half a second, but the resurfacing of the circuit and the stiflingly hot and humid conditions dramatically open the race for the victory based on long-run pace.

“In general it was quite a positive day,” said Verstappen, who turned 19 on Friday. “Especially in the long runs I was very strong, and I think in the end that is very important.

“We have to wait and see on race day, but for the moment we can be happy about the long runs. We need to work a bit in the short runs [for qualifying], but I’m quite confident we can fight for that.”

Ricciardo likewise thought little of his chances in qualifying, but the Australian considered the car’s easiness on even Pirelli’s softest compound tyre paired with the smoothness of the new track surface to be sufficient cause to consider an ambitious one-stop race strategy.

“I think with qualifying it will be quite straightforward,” he said. “I think the soft is giving quite a big advantage, I think everyone will try and start the race with that.

“It seems to be a bit easier on the tyres as well, the new asphalt, so it’s probably easy enough to do a one stop — but I think two stop looks pretty achievable for now.

“I think everyone will try and start on the soft and see what happens after that. We have to use one hard in the race, so soft to hard and then we will see what else.”

But Ricciardo’s primary focus for Saturday will be to improve his qualifying pace to close the gap to his teammate, who he leads in the head-to-head qualifying battle nine races to two.

“I definitely like to be a bit quicker, but it’s just Friday, so there’s time to improve and learn and see what we can do.

“I think [it’s] a bit like Singapore — I wasn’t quite happy on Friday but we turned it around on Saturday and the rest of the weekend, so I’m confident we can do all these things. It just requires attention to detail for now.”

A spanner in the works of any improvement, however, could be track temperature. Free practice two, when the fastest Friday times are set, started at 2PM — one hour earlier than the race start time but three hours earlier than the beginning of qualifying, meaning temperatures in qualifying are likely to be cooler.

“[Track temperature] was 61°C in FP2,” Pirelli racing manager Mario Isola said after the session, comparing it to previous highs of 59°C recorded at Brazil and 57°C at last year’s Malaysian race. “So we are at the top.”

But Isola corroborated Ricciardo’s thinking on the longevity of the hard tyre.

“The hard is not working badly here. We believe the different in terms of lap time between the hard and the medium is not big — it’s less than one second.

“The hard is working, and if it’s very hot, the hard is a high-working-range compound compared to the medium, which is more prone to overheating, so the hard should be a good race tyre.”