SEPANG, April 3 – Ferrari roared back to business Friday with Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa storming to the fastest times in opening practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
But their efforts were overshadowed when an embarrassed McLaren suspended long-time sporting director Dave Ryan and ordered him home over the Lewis Hamilton controversy at the Australian Grand Prix.
Ryan paid the price for lying to stewards about the circumstances that saw Jarno Trulli relegated to 12th in Melbourne and Hamilton elevated to third, a move that was overturned on Thursday when the Briton was disqualified.
Driving supremely, former world champion Raikkonen, who won here last year, clocked one minute 35.707 seconds around the 5.5 kilometre (3.4 mile) Sepang circuit with Massa just over a tenth of a second behind.
It was the perfect response from Ferrari after Melbourne where the Finn came 15th and his Brazilian teammate failed to finish, as they threw down the gauntlet to Brawn GP.
Britain’s Jenson Button, who won in Australia on Brawn’s debut, could only manage seventh in 1:36.254 while Brazilian teammate Rubens Barrichello, second in Melbourne, was sixth.
Separating the Brawn pair from Ferrari’s was Red Bull’s Sebastien Vettel (1:35.954), Williams’ Nico Rosberg (1:36.015) and Mark Webber in the other Red Bull (1:36.026).
"We felt the situation here could be different to Melbourne, but it is too early to say where we are against the opposition," said Raikkonen.
"What we are sure of is that when our car runs trouble-free, we are competitive."
Massa said the tyres were gripping better here than in Australia and the handling of the car was also superior.
"Clearly, looking at the time sheet today, there’s a slight feeling of relief even if it has to be treated with caution," he said adding, "We are very motivated and the whole team will be trying its best."
A day after he was stripped of his third place in Australia, world champion Hamilton failed to shine in his underperforming McLaren, struggling to 11th.
Adding to the Briton’s woes was a 1,200 euro penalty he picked up for exceeding the pit lane speed during the morning practice session as well as the ongoing controversy over the Trulli incident.
"He’s been an integral part of McLaren since 1974 and has played a crucial role in the team’s many world championship successes since that time," McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said of Ryan.
"However, his role in the events of last Sunday, particularly his dealings with the FIA stewards, has caused serious repercussions for the team, for which we apologise. Therefore, I suspended him this morning and he has accepted this."
For Raikkonen, it was a happy ending after being forced into the pits near the end of the morning practice when smoke filled his cockpit.
Initially it appeared that his fire extinguisher had been triggered, but with smoke also seen around the rear of the car, mechanics later suggested that the KERS batteries may have overheated.
Only four teams are fitted with the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems — Ferrari, McLaren, BMW Sauber and Renault — which recovers some of the energy generated by the car’s braking process for extra power.
With the Sepang circuit’s combination of long high-speed straights, and tight, twisting turns, KERS is seen to be an advantage here.