F1 heads to Malaysia with a clearer picture set to develop

The Australian Grand Prix provided answers to some questions posed in preseason but by and large it created even more questions.

Is McLaren really as dominant as their impressive Melbourne performance indicated? Has Red Bull missed a trick with their new car? Are Ferrari really so far off the pace? Perhaps most intriguingly is whether Mercedes have developed a car that can legitimately challenge throughout the season.

Malaysia should help to provide answers over the coming weekend but the big question about the opening race of the year has to be, if Red Bull was as dominant as McLaren were, would we expect a thrilling and competitive season?

The McLaren’s showed the kind of single lap and race pace dominance which we have grown accustomed to seeing Red Bull display in recent years. Apart from their stunning front row lockout the ease with which Jenson Button opened a commanding lead from Sebastian Vettel after the safety car showed the performance advantage that McLaren had at their disposal in Melbourne. With Button able to open a 2.5s lead in the first two laps following the safety car he showed the turn of speed that McLaren have lacked in recent years and which Red Bull has had in abundance.

With Melbourne providing a very specific challenge on the calendar-a track that needs considerable running to “rubber in” and one without high speed corners-this weekend’s race in Sepang is much more likely to give an indication of the pecking order for the coming year.

Sepang International Circuit

The Malaysian Circuit is one of contrasts with two long high speed straights leading into slow second gear hairpins which are sure to see the vast majority of overtaking attempts. The middle sector of the lap is a mix of fast corners, turns 5-8, and another slow hairpin that can present overtaking opportunities, if you have a willing partner. The final sector is dominated by the challenging complex from turn 12 that is the most exciting part of the lap for drivers where they thread the eye of a needle flat out in sixth gear before finding their braking point for the next corner which leads onto the long back straight.

With such a varied track layout the setup of the car is a compromise. Do you look for ultimate top speed at the expense of grip in the infield or vice versa? Obviously to set your car up for either extreme would be courting disaster so teams look to find a happy medium in terms of speed and grip. There is however one key point to take from this balance, the car with the fastest top speed has invariably finished inside the top five at this circuit, a factor that could play a key role in Mercedes performance this weekend.

The heat and humidity makes this a challenging environment for drivers and team members but one which Mark Webber is clearly relishing:

“Malaysia is obviously very, very hot, so the track temperature is very hard on the tyres, which needs managing,” said the Australian. “The track is beautiful to drive on; you really get to feel the sensation of a Formula One car, particularly in the middle sector. It’s a great venue and, as a track, it has different demands to the Melbourne circuit, so that’s something we’ll be looking to get on top of very quickly.”

Strategy for Malaysia

With high temperatures and high tyre degradation expected this weekend it would be very surprising if anything other than a three stop strategy was employed by the leading teams. Pirelli will bring the medium and hard compounds this weekend so we should expect some of the midfield runners to try a two stop strategy.

With Lotus having shown impressive pace in Melbourne it will be interesting to see what the team do this weekend. We never truly saw their race pace because of Grosjean’s early retirement and Raikkonen spending much of the afternoon in traffic but they could be a wildcard front runner to try a two stop strategy.

Pressure already building….

There are only two states in Formula 1; applying pressure or receiving it. There is no middle ground and even at this early stage of the season the pressure is starting to build on Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton.

With Ferrari struggling so badly in Australia it took a Herculean drive from Fernando Alonso to net a fifth place finish and with Massa having once again been outclassed there is huge pressure on the Brazilian. With the 2008 championship runner up in the final year of his contract there is little prospect an extension given his struggles since his Hungarian GP crash over two years ago.

Massa doesn’t necessarily need a strong result this weekend he just needs to show his team that he can still compete with Alonso. In their two years as teammates it has been startling to see just how much of a beating Massa’s reputation has taken at the hands of the Spaniard and it is clear that it has taken its toll emotionally on Massa.

Malaysia has never been a happy hunting ground for Felipe, his best finish is fifth, so it is unlikely that he will find the performance required this weekend but it is amazing that with only one race down of twenty that the Brazilian is already feeling the pressure.

For Hamilton the pressure is familiar…Jenson Button outclassing him in the opening race. Last year Hamilton was firmly put in his place by Button with the 2009 champion firmly entrenching himself as the leader of McLaren. The season opened with Hamilton firing a warning shot across the garage to Button with a dominant pole but once again when the chequered flag was waved it was Hamilton who had been defeated.

His pole lap in Melbourne was stunning but with Button claiming the win there was little doubt that, once again, Lewis had been outshone on race day. Button’s cerebral approach to racing has reaped rewards in the last two years but it does him a disservice to lay that as the only reason he has won races. Button’s race speed when the car is as he wants it is as impressive as anyone’s on the grid.

He does lack the one lap pace of Hamilton but the trade off, in the current regulations, has allowed him to show that races have evolved from sheer sprints into a more sophisticated, tactical battle. For Hamilton this weekend is crucial. He has spent the last week saying that Australia wasn’t a reminder of last year to him; now he has to prove to the world that he can compete with Button over a race distance.

Australia showed that the fiery, determined Hamilton is still very much a threat and without the intervention of the safety car he would have finished a comfortable second but now he has to show that he can beat Button and get his championship challenge back on track. If he fails to do so the writing may be on the wall for another season that will end in disappointment for the Englishman.

Heat and humidity provide huge challenge to teams

With the teams having spent the winter testing in Spain in temperatures of around 15C the challenge of racing in Malaysia is immense.

Suddenly mechanics are forced to deal with temperatures of almost 40C and they need to adapt their cars to deal with this heat. Finding a suitable cooling solution has always been the biggest test for squads in South East Asia. When asked about the task of dealing with this issue Sauber’s head of engineering, Giampaulo Dall’Ara, said:

“In terms of cooling for the engine and gearbox, you normally run the maximum available configuration in Sepang. Last, but not least, there you sometimes have to deal with changing weather conditions at very short notice.”

Remi Taffin, head of Renault Sport’s F1 operations, was keen to talk about how the French manufacturer has developed safeguards within the engine to deal with the heat:

“Malaysia places a very different set of stresses on an engine from Australia,” commented the engineer. “The heat and humidity can present stiff challenges for an engine’s cooling systems that may mean extra holes have to be put in the bodywork to diffuse heat. The safeguards Renault has put in place mean no such measures need to be taken with the RS27 so we can focus entirely on delivering the drivability needed for the flowing corners and those two long straights, which account for 25% of the lap, and building on the strong start in Melbourne.”

As usual tyres will play a key role this weekend

Pirelli’s tyres have played a crucial role in the outcome of races throughout the last year and the challenge facing Paul Hembery’s engineers is quite clear for this weekend:

“Malaysia is one of the biggest challenges that we will face all year, and that is simply down to the nature of the track and the weather,” said Pirelli’s head of motorsport. “We can expect track temperatures of up to around 50 degrees centigrade and a similar performance gap between the two nominated compounds as we saw in Australia.”

“Our target is still for that gap to be less than one second – even though there is a whole step missing between the soft and the hard compounds that we have chosen for the race,” continued the Englishman. “Malaysia is good for overtaking, and that should fit in well with the characteristics of our P Zero tyres, which have been specifically designed to promote overtaking through a certain degree of deliberate degradation. Tyre strategy is going to be very important, particularly when it comes to looking after tyres at the beginning of a stint. Last year the battle for the podium places went down to the very last lap, and our objective for this year’s tyres is to encourage even closer racing, following the thrilling start we saw in Australia last weekend.”

Weather for this weekend

As ever the weather in Malaysia will be one of the key factors in the outcome of the races. With high temperatures and thunder storms expected throughout the weekend. In the past we have seen downpours come out of nowhere to drench the circuit and force a safety car situation.

In addition to this qualifying can leave teams facing a conundrum. In 2010 we saw rain hit the session and Ferrari and McLaren inexplicably left their drivers in the garage with the expectation that the track would dry. When it became clear that this would not happen the grid saw Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa all eliminated in Q1. The lesson was that in Malaysia it is crucial to always be on the right tyres for the conditions rather than trying to “out-think” the weather.

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