By John O'Brien
SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton is confident his Mercedes can be more competitive at the Malaysian Grand Prix than it was at last week's season-opener in Melbourne after an encouraging first day of free practice on Friday.
Hamilton qualified third but finished fifth in the first competitive outing for his new team at Albert Park and despite not being able to match the one-lap speed of his rivals at Sepang, the Briton was buoyed by his day's work.
"It felt quick and better than it did in the last race and fingers crossed it will be," the 2008 world champion told reporters, despite lapping more than a second slower than Melbourne winner Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus.
"We have taken a step forward on long-run pace but the others look pretty quick as well, so it's difficult to judge where we are.
"The Lotus looks really quick and it's not until after I analyse the laps that I can judge how good ours was," said Hamilton, who was ninth in both sessions at Sepang.
Managing tyres appears to be the main dilemma facing most teams this season and after rapid degradation cost Hamilton a chance of a podium in Australia, the Briton feels his team are learning how to get the most out of the Pirellis.
"In the first session, we did chew up the tyres a bit but that was mostly due to the set up of the car, which had a lot of oversteer," he added.
"I think we are stronger race-pace wise. When we did the long-run, it felt pretty strong."
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn hinted that Hamilton and team mate Nico Rosberg were carrying heavier fuel loads than normal to get a better gauge of how the tyres reacted in race conditions.
Brawn's comments indicate the team would be more competitive in qualifying on Saturday but Rosberg was quick to downplay the raw speed of the Mercedes compared to the front runners.
"We have been concentrating on the long-run performance because that was a little bit our problem in Melbourne and we're doing better there," the German said.
"On the short run, it wasn't looking that great so maybe we're a little bit behind."
(Editing by Alan Baldwin)