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Mercedes march on but Red Bull closing in

Lotus Formula One driver Romain Grosjean of France pits during the third practice session of the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix at Sepang Internati
Lotus Formula One driver Romain Grosjean of France pits during the third practice session of the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix at Sepang Internati

By Patrick Johnston

SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - With two wins from two races under their belt in the new Formula One season, Mercedes are powering confidently toward another speedster's paradise in Bahrain this week, albeit with a watchful eye on fast improving rivals Red Bull.

Lewis Hamilton's pole-to-flag victory on Sunday ahead of team mate Nico Rosberg looked comfortable in the scorching Sepang sunshine, but quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel had managed to split the pair in a wet qualifying session.

The German Red Bull driver fell behind Rosberg before the first corner on race day in Malaysia but managed to push his compatriot for long periods before the gap widened in the final stages of the 56-lap race.

Vettel's 15 points for third place were Red Bull's first of the season and a jump in the right direction for a team that looked in disarray during winter testing after their Renault power unit suffered reliability woes.

"The last day of testing was four weeks ago or something and they were absolutely nowhere and now he (Vettel) was right in the back of me, pushing me," Rosberg told reporters after moving further clear in the drivers standings ahead of Hamilton.

"The way they've ramped up their pace, very impressive, so we need to keep on it to keep our advantage."

Rosberg leads the drivers championship on 43 points, ahead of Hamilton (25) and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso (24).

Vettel's team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, also showed promising signs before a botched pit stop, damaged front wing and punctured tire led to him retiring on lap 49.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was optimistic that they had made progress in bridging the gap on the Formula One pace setters.

"Considering where we were a month ago, to be on the podium with Sebastian in Malaysia in a dry race, is an incredible performance," he said.

"We knew that we had some ground to catch up to the Mercedes, so to finish as close as Sebastian did today was a really positive performance and, while we know we've got a lot of work to do, we can begin to realize the scale of our challenge."

'ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN'

Adding fuel to the Renault-powered revival was Russian rookie Danil Kvyat grabbing 10th to give Toro Rosso a second weekend of points after both he and team mate Jean-Eric Vergne's top 10 finishes in Australia.

Even struggling Lotus managed to finish a race, with Romain Grosjean ending in 11th in Malaysia.

However, they were all second best to Mercedes, whose pace on the quick Sepang straights was too much for the Red Bulls.

With similarly long straights awaiting them in Manama before they head to another Hermann Tilke designed circuit in China after that, Horner was thinking small in the short term.

"Their advantage in Bahrain will obviously be bigger than it was here because that is a very powered dominated circuit," he said.

"For Bahrain, I don't think there is going to be a solution and it doesn't tend to rain much in Bahrain so we are obviously going to try and make us much progress as we can in the week and hopefully we can nudge a bit closer to them.

"A lot of the issues are software related so hopefully the steps can be made and we can close that gap down."

For that reason, Hamilton knew it was vital to take advantage before the pack inevitably caught up, much like Jenson Button did en route to winning the 2009 championship with Brawn when his six race victories came in the first seven races.

Hamilton is also wary of allowing complacency to creep into the team, who claimed their first one-two since 1955.

Mercedes suffered reliability problems in the season-opening race which forced Hamilton to retire early after qualifying on pole in Melbourne.

"It's great to see Mercedes leading the championship but we know that we have to make these early races pay," the Briton said after his 23rd career win.

"Anything can happen, as we saw in Australia."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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