By Abhishek Takle
SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton outpaced his championship-leading Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg in practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Friday, the Briton topping the timesheets with the fastest lap of the day.
The defending Formula One champion finished behind Rosberg in the morning but found his groove around a resurfaced Sepang circuit in the afternoon to set a benchmark time of one minute, 34.944 seconds. Hamilton trails Rosberg by eight points after the German won the last race in Singapore but his prospects of striking back with a 50th career win were lifted by an improved performance in practice following a disappointing Friday a fortnight ago.
Rosberg, who led his team mate by a comfortable margin in the morning, ended the day with a time 0.233 seconds slower than the Briton with the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen finishing third and fourth respectively.
The duo were closer to the dominant Mercedes in the afternoon but still more than half a second adrift as they swapped positions from first practise when the 2007 world champion edged out last year's race winner.
Max Verstappen celebrated his 19th birthday by improving from seventh to fifth for Red Bull, as Sergio Perez came sixth ahead of McLaren's Fernando Alonso, who ended a promising day of running with Honda's upgraded power unit in seventh.
The Spaniard is set to start the race at the back of the grid after being hit with a 30-place engine-related penalty for running a new power unit but the modifications appeared to help as he had been fifth in the morning.
Kevin Magnussen, whose burning car provided an early moment of drama that brought out the red flags in the opening session, went 19th fastest in the afternoon.
He completed 19 laps after managing just two in the morning.
The Dane was forced to hot foot it out of his Renault after it was engulfed in flames while being wheeled into the garage after just seven minutes of action.
Renault mechanics initially brought the fire under control, squirting extinguisher all over the car, but fuel gushing out of the top of the airbox continued to reignite, leaving the vehicle stranded in the pit-lane and prompting a 15-minute stoppage.
Renault, who were running the car in an experimental configuration in preparation for next month's high-altitude Mexican Grand Prix, put the cause of the fire down to a fuel leak from the breather.
There was little drama otherwise on a straightforward day of practice, with a few minor spins and lock-ups as drivers got to grips with changes to the track, including tweaks to the camber and gradients of some of its 15 corners.
Mercedes head into Sunday's race on the brink of claiming a third constructors' title but the battle for individual honors between the team's drivers is a lot closer, with Rosberg holding a points advantage and the momentum over Hamilton.
The German regained the overall lead after scoring his third win in a row in Singapore.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury/John O'Brien)