The Formula 1 season is not even a week old and already the headlines have ranged from “The most open season in years” on Friday, to the doom and gloom of “Vettel and Red Bull dominance of 2011 returns to F1” and finally that “Lotus tyre advantage gives Kimi the edge.”
Where is the truth in this wildly divergent thought process?
It a complicated question given that we have only a small sample size of one race weekend ran in mixed weather conditions on a temporary track. But like many complex question the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Australia showed us that Red Bull again enjoys an advantage in terms of one lap pace. In qualifying Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber locked out the front row and looked very comfortable in doing so. The race however showed that, just like last year, having the edge in terms of ultimate pace doesn’t offer the huge advantage that it did in previous years.
It seems perfectly logical that if you are going faster that you would use more rubber but after so many years of conservative tyre manufacturing it is still taking time for this thought process to sink into Formula 1. We still see the headline grabbing times in practice and qualifying and think that a 300km Grand Prix is a foregone conclusion.
The last two years, and last weekend, have showed us once again that while it is an advantage to start at the front it does not offer a guarantee of a victory. In contemporary Formula 1 it is difficult to win a race from off the front rows but it is no longer impossible to do so.
This weekend in Malaysia we will no doubt see some of the muddy waters of the opening races of the season clear and a picture start to develop over what to expect but with rain likely to fall throughout the weekend the muddy waters will have to be driven through and more questions will be asked after the flag falls on Sunday….
The Sepang international Circuit
This is the 15th Malaysian Grand Prix and in that time the Sepang circuit has established itself as arguably the toughest test of man and machinery. The race weekend will be run in high temperatures and fatigue inducing humidity that makes mistakes all too easy. The drivers will be cocooned inside their cockpits with temperatures rising so high that the fluid in their drinks bottles will evaporate. The mechanics are operating on a short turnaround after Australia and even the most fastidious of engineers can miss something through the mental and physical toll of working in the toughest conditions faced all season.
Even so Malaysia is one of the most anticipated races of the year because it tests you to your limits. Sepang has a good blend of fast and slow corners; six of the corners are taken at over 200 km/h. As a result the drivers need a car that is stable and planted in the fast corners and one that is also nimble enough to tackle the slower corners, particularly the opening section of the lap. Force India’s Paul di Resta, who finished eighth in the season opener, commented about the characteristics of the track:
“I think Sepang is probably one of the most complete tracks of the season,” said the Scot. “It was the very first of the new generation tracks and it has nice flowing sections, some slow bits, as well as high-speed chicanes. I think it’s one of the better tracks on the calendar. Along with the next one in Shanghai, it’s one of the tracks I enjoy.”
Di Resta’s use of the phrase “complete track” is key to understanding how drivers and engineers have to approach this weekend. You need to find a compromise in setup that gives you the balance needed for the very different requirements of Sepang.
Mercedes like to regard Malaysia as one of their home races due to their sponsorship by Petronas and having surprised everyone with their pace in Australia both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will go into this weekend’s race feeling good about their prospects. For Rosberg Malaysia has happy memories of his first Mercedes podium, in 2010, and the German echoed di Resta’s thoughts on Sepang by saying, “Sepang is one of my favourite tracks on the Formula One calendar. The layout has a little bit of everything with the slow and fast corners making a nice mix.”
Will Lotus continue to enjoy a tyre advantage?
It wasn’t a huge surprise that Lotus were kind on their tyres in Australia. Last year Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean consistently were one of the easiest drivers on their rubber and it gave them a particular advantage at various races, Bahrain and Hungary for example. The E21 seems to have brought this trait forward on the basis of winter testing and the opening Grand Prix where Kimi used a two stop strategy to claim a commanding victory. It would be very easy to say that Malaysia should exaggerate the advantage that we saw last weekend.
The race will be run in high temperatures on a very abrasive track surface so everyone will use their tyres harder this weekend. However with such different weather and track conditions this weekend we could see the Lotus suffer similar rubber woes that affected Red Bull and Ferrari in Melbourne. It will still be likely that their rivals with suffer more wear but it is unlikely that Lotus will be in a position to make one stop less than their rivals.
The wear rate of the new compounds from Pirelli and the unforgiving track surface of Sepang should be enough to nullify the advantage that Lotus enjoyed in the season opener. Speaking ahead of this weekend’s race Raikkonen was keen to emphasise just how little we can take from his performance in Australia as a precursor to the rest of the season:
“It feels good but it’s only after one race,” commented the 2007 world champion. “It doesn’t really change our aim and how we approach this year. Definitely, we are happy with the win but there is an awful lot to still to do to win the championship. We seemed to have a good car in Albert Park, so hopefully it works well in the next races also. I’m happy that we didn’t really have to go full speed all the time so it’s kind of a good sign, a good race for us, but as I said, it might be a completely different story in Malaysia.”
With Raikkonen doing his best to keep a lid on expectations within Lotus it is still clear that the E21 is a very competitive race car and while last year the team were hamstrung by an inability to switch on the Pirelli tyres over a single qualifying lap it is likely that this should be less of a factor due to the new constructions and compounds being used this season. If the team can find a way to consistently qualify inside the top six they will be very well placed at a lot of races this season but again we are using a very small sample size of just one weekend and Melbourne showed us just how quickly opinions can change in Formula 1!
To get a better indication of how Lotus will fare in the coming races a look at Grosjean’s Melbourne performance is a good place to start. The Frenchman suffered with inconsistent handling in Australia. The Frenchman was on the pace in a couple of sessions but struggled in others. While it was clear that he couldn’t find the right balance in Melbourne his race shows us how difficult it is in the midfield pack this year.
While Raikkonen had the pace to lead the race Grosjean was stuck in traffic throughout the 58 lap race. This meant that while Kimi could dictate his pace and allow his times a certain amount of leeway Grosjean was constantly forced to fight and scrap with drivers around him. This meant that he was forced to change to a three stop strategy and thus negated the biggest advantage enjoyed by his teammate. In dirty air Grosjean suffered from the same tyre wear as the majority of the field. If Raikkonen, or Grosjean, are not able to hit the front in Malaysia we could see this pattern repeated and once again the headlines will change to reflect the outcome of this weekend’s Grand Prix and “Lotus is pegged back.” Depending on whether Lotus or at the front or in the midfield the waters will get clearer or muddier…
Red Bull and Ferrari still look the most likely winners
Australia showed us that Red Bull has once again got a stunning turn of speed. Sebastian Vettel was able to lead a Red Bull front row lockout and the ease with which he was able to open a gap at the start of stints during the race was very impressive.
However, it was not more impressive than the manner in which Felipe Massa was able to reel Vettel back in during the first half of the race. While Vettel was able to open a cushion over the Ferrari in the opening three or four laps of a stint Massa clawed the gap back over the remaining laps and was able to get very close to the Red Bull.
Australia is a track that it is difficult to overtake on and the advantage of the Ferrari merely meant that Massa was close to Vettel at the end of each stint but unable to challenge the German. Malaysia on the other hand is a wide open race track with plenty of overtaking opportunities and if the pattern is repeated this weekend the Ferrari’s should be well placed to fight for the win again.
Strategy was the main outdoing of Ferrari in the last few years but in Australia they played the race perfectly for Alonso to leapfrog ahead of Vettel and Massa at the pitstops and vault into what would ultimately become second position once all the pitstops had been shuffled out of the way. Again as the race wore on the race pace advantage enjoyed by Ferrari meant that they were able to pull away and Alonso could claim a comfortable second place finish and 18 points. The Scuderia need to stay aggressive this weekend with their strategy and the key to this will be once again having a competitive Massa in the second car.
The Brazilian’s performance in Melbourne was superb and even though he lost out to Alonso in the strategy game his return to form in the closing third of last season has clearly carried forward into 2013 and a podium finish this weekend is not beyond the realms of possibility. If Massa can keep his Melbourne form going this weekend he will be on his way to becoming what Ferrari need him to be this year, a perfect number two driver.
Just like his compatriot Rubens Barrichello before him Ferrari need a driver that is quick enough to keep Alonso on his toes but ultimately not to take many points away from the Spaniard. If Massa can keep doing this he will be well on his way to a new contract with the team.
Midway through last year there was a thundering chorus of dismay at Massa’s performance from the tifosi but now he is justifying the faith that the team, and in particular Stefano Domenicali showed in him last year.
At Red Bull the team knows that they have the outright fastest car on the grid but they also know that they need to find a way of managing their tyres better. Christian Horner will know that there is no advantage to being fastest on Saturday if you don’t take the flag first on Sunday so it will be very interesting to see how the team approaches this weekend. Do they look to ease off in terms of their ultimate pace and try and find a better compromise for Sunday or sail into the wind and look to use their speed advantage in the race. It is an interesting conundrum for the Milton Keynes based team and one that every team on the pitlane would love to be facing.
Finding a way to balance performance and longevity is nothing new in racing and just like we saw last year the team’s will all understand the Pirelli tyres as the year progresses. These early season races however are when teams try various settings and strategies to find that balance as early as possible. Last year we saw teams travel down a blind alley at times and this year will see that pattern repeat itself again.
Red Bull will understand the tyres eventually but until they do their performance advantage is negated.
McLaren and Williams look to bounce back
McLaren’s Melbourne misery was certainly the biggest shock of the opening weekend of the season but they were not alone in failing to live up to expectations. Williams also went to Australia with high hopes of a strong season but instead left the opening race having underperformed and struggled throughout. Both teams have a lot of work to do to get to the bottom of their respective problems but with Jenson Button already saying that “despite getting the maximum out of the car. It’s still clearly not where we want to be.” It is perfectly clear that the team will be racing in the midfield for a minimum of the next couple of races.
It would be dangerous to underestimate the development team at McLaren. At various times over the last five years McLaren have shown that they are arguably the best team in the pitlane at developing their car as the year progresses. However given the recent loss of Paddy Lowe to Mercedes it will be worth noting how this year differs to previous campaigns.
Team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, will be feeling the heat this weekend, in more ways than one, and while the team will know that finding a quick fix will not be possible increasing their understanding of the car will the main target for the team this weekend. Whitmarsh emphasised this by saying:
“Clearly, our performance in Australia last weekend was not up to our high expectations,” commented the Englishman. “We have been working tirelessly to bring additional performance to MP4-28. But the short turnaround between rounds one and two of the championship means that we’ll arrive in Malaysia with less scope to improve our fortunes. This weekend, however, will provide us with additional opportunities to understand our car’s behaviour and to increase our understanding of the package.”
Both Jenson Button and Sergio Perez missed the Q3 cut off in Australia and there is little reason to expect that to change this weekend. In the past the pair has however had strong races in the past in Malaysia, particularly Perez last year, and while they will not have the pace in qualifying a wet race could give them a chance to score some points.
Rain is always on the cards at Sepang and it is ironic that McLaren, the team with the fastest car last year, is now likely praying for rain as the only chance to limit their losses in Malaysia as Jenson Button admitted:
“I don’t think we can expect an improvement in our fortunes,” admitted the 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix winner. “But the thing about Malaysia is that it can be so unpredictable – particularly with the later start time on Sunday afternoon, which tends to see late-afternoon showers fall. We saw that last year, when Fernando won, and we know that the unpredictable weather can make it a lottery for everyone. That’s something that could play into our hands – I do enjoy driving in changeable conditions, and would love the challenge of being able to run competitively in a car that we all know is not quite capable of challenging for victories yet.”
Williams also underperformed last weekend and Pastor Maldonado was very critical of the new car at various points during the weekend.
Maldonado, the winner of last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, ended his race stuck in a gravel trap following a spin. He complained about the handling of the FW35 and was clearly out of sorts throughout the weekend but the team seems confident that they have gotten to the bottom of the causes of the problems and there is a belief within the team that they should start making progress in Malaysia.
“Following a difficult opening to the season in Australia, the team has regrouped and been working hard to solve the problems we encountered last weekend,” he said. “We have a good idea where to focus our efforts and learnt a lot in Melbourne which we will implement in Malaysia to continue working to improve the performance of the FW35 throughout Friday testing and into the weekend.”
Having missed the opening four days of testing in Jerez-Williams used an interim car rather than the 2013 model-the team is clearly behind the rest of the field in terms of their understanding of their package. It is hard to lose one-third of your pre-season running and expect to hit the ground running in the opening race of the season and Williams showed that simulators and various tools are no substitute for on track running. It will be difficult for the team to fight with Sauber and Force India this weekend but with a three week break until the third round of the season they should be back in the midfield running by the Chinese Grand Prix.
Rookies look to build on Australian experiences
The season opener saw all five rookies enjoy various levels of success. Getting to the finish of the season opening race is always the main target for rookies. Without the extensive pre-season testing that the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen enjoyed in the past the challenge for rookies is immense. They are expected to turn up at Melbourne with only a handful of days testing and be fast and consistent. It is one of the biggest challenges imaginable but we saw in Australia that it is not beyond the rookie class of 2013.
Jules Bianchi was the most impressive performer with the Marussia driver lapping with superb consistency and biting at the heels of the Toro Rosso’s and Williams throughout the race. The Frenchman was passed over for a seat with Force India before accepting the Marussia drive at the 11th hour but given his opening weekend performance it is clear that the team has gotten its hands on a very promising driver.
After the race the Frenchman was clearly very happy with his debut weekend:
“It has been nice to take a couple of days in Australia to really absorb the experience of my first Formula 1 race last weekend,” said Bianchi. “There were quite a lot of new things to be faced with, including driving a race of that distance for the first time and bringing together everything that I had learned in the days before. This week I have had the chance to think everything through – what I have learned and where I need to go from here. I had a good debrief with my engineering team and I feel very comfortable, so now I start to think about Malaysia. I know the challenge it brings in terms of the heat and humidity, so I’m prepared for that. Although my debut went well, there are some areas that I need to work on and where I can improve – as you would expect – so this race we will have a little more time and experience to think about what we need to do to keep pushing forward. I’m hoping for another good performance in the race on Sunday of course.”
Learning from the opening weekend of their careers was a familiar refrain from all of the rookies with Valtteri Bottas also pleased to have gained experience from Australia:
“I learnt a lot from my first Grand Prix in Australia,” said the Finn. “Whilst we weren’t as competitive as we had hoped, the fact that I brought the car home safely in my first race is a positive I can take away and we will now be looking to improve on our performance for this race.”
With Bianchi receiving rave reviews his teammate, Max Chilton, put in a steady shift in the other Marussia but while he was mistake free it is clear that he will have a very tough season in comparison to his fellow rookie; Bianchi finished over a lap ahead. The Englishman however is looking forward to Malaysia:
“With my debut Grand Prix done and dusted, it’s time to start thinking about Round 2 in Malaysia,” said Chilton. “It was my first time racing at Albert Park but Sepang is a track I know well and have raced at a few times so, to some extent, that helps in getting up to speed much more quickly and being able to focus on car set-up instead. After such a positive start to the season and an obviously competitive car, I can’t wait for the next opportunity to drive it this weekend.”
Esteban Gutierrez and Giedo van der Garde have also raced at Sepang in GP2 and will be looking to build on the debuts with solid performances in Malaysia. Both drivers have a good measuring stick in their respective teammates, Nico Hulkenberg and Charles Pic, so their progress will be easy to measure in the coming races.
Compromise the key at Malaysia for engineers
Sepang demands a chassis that is equally adept in high and slow speed corners. It also needs an aero package that is efficient at cutting through the wind so that you can reach over 200 mph on the two long straights. Finally you need an engine that has a lot of top end power for the straights but also one that has a lot of torque to get out of the slow and medium speed corners. In other words Sepang is a track that demands that you have the best of everything!
Sauber’s head of engineering, Tom McCullough, spoke about finding this balance ahead of this weekend’s race:
“The Sepang circuit is a medium to high speed one,” said the Englishman. “The circuit is technically challenging as there are also two long straights that require an efficient car and also several low speed corners. The circuit’s characteristics and typically high temperatures are also a real challenge for the tyres, which is why Pirelli will bring the medium and hard compounds.”
“Sepang is a challenge for the engine as there are two long straights of just under a kilometre each,” said the Frenchman. “Top end power and good acceleration are thus important, but there are also tight mid to low speed corners so the engine also needs to be responsive on the apex and exit of turns. The high ambient humidity reduces engine power output as the high water content displaces the oxygen available to burn. If it stays dry, Sepang is actually one of the harder circuits for engine engineers as the engine gets a full workout.”
The heat and humidity thus make Sepang the ultimate test for both man and machinery in modern Formula 1.
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
Melbourne and last two seasons have shown us just how integral Pirelli tyres have become to race performances and this weekend will be no exception. Malaysia has a lot of high speed corners that place high lateral forces on the car and place a great strain on the tyres. When you combine these high speed corners with the heavy braking for the slow first and final corners of the lap make it exceptionally easy for a driver to lock up their tyres and flat spot them.
Given the durability issues from Australia it is likely that we will see large variations in lap times at various stages as drivers get towards the end of their stints.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport director, however is looking forward to the challenges of Malaysia:
“The Malaysian Grand Prix is always one of the most demanding of the entire year for the tyres because of the extreme conditions we encounter: massive humidity, high temperatures and often torrential rain. We would describe Sepang as genuinely ‘extreme’: both in terms of weather and track surface. This means that it is one of the most demanding weekends for our tyres that we experience all year.
“For the first time we see our new Orange hard compound in competition, with this colour chosen to make it more easy to distinguish from the white medium on television. These are the two hardest tyres in the range, ideally suited for the high temperatures and abrasive surface of Malaysia. The nomination we have for Malaysia is the same as last year, but the compounds themselves offer more performance, up to a second a lap faster this year, and deliberately increased degradation this season.
“Last year three stops proved to be the winning strategy in a mixed wet and dry race, with a thrilling finish between Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez that was all about tyres. We’d expect three stops again but once more it’s likely to be weather that dominates the action. Even when it isn’t raining, the drivers can expect humidity in the region of 80% and ambient temperatures of more than 30 degrees centigrade.”
Weather for this weekend
Rain is always a possibility at Sepang at this time of year and due to the tropical climate making a reliable forecast that extends beyond “hot and humid” is impossible when thinking in terms of the times of the various sessions. Isolated pockets of weather are common and the late start time of the race will mean that the likelihood of rain increases for during the race but again it is very difficult to forecast exactly what will happen. We’ve seen at times in Sepang that one section of the lap could be in a downpour while the other half is bone dry. It makes for an exciting race for fans but a nightmare for drivers and teams!
Australia gave us a great opening race of the season but left a lot of questions that needed to be answered….the biggest question however will be whether Malaysia starts to provide those answers.