Updated at: 03/23/2013 6:09 PM
By MIKE CASEY
(AP) SEPANG, Malaysia - Kimi Raikkonen continued his surprisingly strong start to the Formula One season, posting the fastest time in the second practice at the Malaysian Grand Prix, outpacing defending champion Sebastian Vettel before rain hit the circuit Friday.
The Lotus driver sent a clear message that his victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was no fluke, as he edged triple world champion Vettel of Red Bull by .019 seconds.
Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso came in third and fourth followed by Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber, who earlier was fastest in the first practice session.
"It was a good day so far," Lotus technical director James Alison said. "The car seems quite happy."
Meanwhile, it was another disappointing day for McLaren, which has struggled since revamping its race car in the offseason. Sergio Perez, who joined McLaren from Sauber for this season was 11th, followed by 2009 champion Jenson Button in 12th.
After the second session, McLaren’s Sporting Director Sam Michael said there were encouraging signs since Australia, where Button finished ninth, but wouldn’t say when the car might begin competing with the likes of the Red Bulls and Ferraris.
"It’s very hard to make predictions when you are trying to unlock two or three areas in the car," he said. "The past history of McLaren to recover from situations like this is extremely strong. They have done it before."
The second session took place in overcast conditions and a steady rain briefly hit the Sepang circuit with about 30 minutes remaining. That caused some slippery conditions and several drivers were affected.
Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg spun out coming into the pits and just got out of the way of the Red Bulls, while Raikkonen’s teammate Romain Grosjean went off the track briefly into a grassy area before returning.
Lewis Hamilton, who appeared to justify his offseason switch from McLaren to Mercedes with a fifth-place finish in Australia, has not shown the same pace here in Malaysia running ninth-fastest in both sessions.
Raikkonen is aiming to solidify his surprise lead at the top of the driver’s standings with a victory in Malaysia, but much will depend on the weather. The Sepang circuit, more than any other, has a history of being hit by afternoon rain showers that are common at this time of year.
Alonso won last year’s race only after Sergio Perez ran off the track just as he was attempting to pass the Spaniard in wet conditions after the race was delayed 51 minutes because of the rain.
Alonso finished second in Australia and has expressed confidence that his car will be able to keep pace this weekend with Raikkonen.
Red Bull, in contrast, continues to exude the confidence expected from a team that won the last three constructors championships. The team enters this weekend fretting about heavy degradation of the new-season Pirelli tires, which cost it valuable pace in Australia and forced Vettel to settle for third.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)