Sepang, March 24, 2012 – For the second weekend in succession McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button qualified first and second, at the Malaysian Grand Prix. Both drivers used Pirelli’s P Zero White medium tyre for their fastest times, with Hamilton setting a time of 1m36.219s.
Tyre strategy was key to qualifying, with reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel selecting a different approach. The Red Bull driver switched to the P Zero Silver hard tyre for his final run, using it to set his fastest time – sixth overall – which means that he will be the only driver in the top 10 able to start the race on the harder compound tomorrow. All the drivers set a time in qualifying, with nobody electing to stay in the garage.
Hamilton set his pole time on his first run with the medium tyres during the final qualifying session, and was able to abort his final run and save some tyre wear once it was clear his time would not be beaten. Button completed two runs, setting his fastest time in the closing seconds.
A highlight of qualifying was also the excellent performance of two former World Champions. Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher qualified third with the P Zero White medium: his best grid position since his Formula One comeback. Kimi Raikkonen, returning to Formula One after a two-year absence, used the same tyres to qualify fifth. Raikkonen set exactly the same time as Red Bull’s Mark Webber, but the Finn has a penalty that will drop him five places on the grid.
The top teams all aimed to use the hard tyre to get through the opening qualifying session, although some drivers used the medium. Qualifying was held in dry conditions with ambient temperatures of 31 degrees centigrade but 63% humidity.
By contrast, all the drivers used the P Zero White medium during the second session, where Raikkonen was quickest. Williams driver Pastor Maldonado just failed to make the top 10 cut and will start from 11th on the grid, but this means that under the rules he will be able to start on whichever tyre compound he prefers.
During the final free practice session this morning, which started in damp conditions with drivers using the Cinturato Green intermediate, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg went fastest – eventually using the P Zero White medium in the closing minutes once the track had dried up.
The Sepang circuit has an abrasive surface and very high lateral loads for the tyres, with the rain shower that fell earlier having little effect on the grip levels. Last year, Pirelli nominated the soft and the hard tyre for the Malaysian Grand Prix, but this year the compounds are a lot softer – with the new P Zero Silver hard at approximately the same level as the 2011 medium.
Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery commented: “This is undoubtedly going to be one of the most demanding races of the year for the tyres, pushing the limits of their performance on a circuit that is well-known for degradation. Consequently tyre management is going to be critical and, as we saw today, the strategy starts in qualifying where the teams have to balance short term gains against long term benefits. There could be a strong argument for starting the race on the hard tyre for example, which we expect to last for around 25 laps, but the fastest times in qualifying came from the P Zero White, which is just under half a second quicker per lap. We’re expecting three stops from the drivers who got through to the final qualifying session on the medium, so we may see them run a comparatively short first stint before switching to the hard, which has been very strong so far all weekend.”