Malaysian GP a case of expect the unexpected

Malaysian flag held by grid girls on the grid

Apr.7 (Daniel Chalmers) The Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, round two of the F1 World Championship, apart from being one of the toughest races on the calendar for cars and drivers is also a tough one to predict. A real case of expecting the unexpected as Daniel Chalmers reveals.

This weekend’s three key questions:

  • How big will Red Bull’s advantage be on a circuit, which will give the cars and tyres a sterner examination?
  • Was Ferrari’s poor showing a one-off down to the conditions in Melbourne or are they actually in big trouble?
  • On a much tougher track for the tyres, and more potential for overtaking, how much more will DRS and Pirelli tyres add to the show?
The podium (L to R): Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing, second; Adrian Newey (GBR) Red Bull Racing Chief Technical Officer; race winner Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing and third placed Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes GP. Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday 4 April 2010.

2010 Malaysian GP podium (L to R) Second placed Mark Webber race winner Sebastian Vettel and third placed Nico Rosberg with Adrian Newey between the Red Bull drivers

There’s no doubt that Red Bull will remain firm favourites in Malaysia, but signs suggest it could be a tougher and very different race to Australia.

What we have to remember is that Sepang is a much more typical F1 circuit, so we will learn far more about the pecking order than we did in Melbourne, which regularly throws up surprises.

McLaren and Ferrari are likely to be stronger, plus the Pirelli tyres and the adjustable rear wing are likely to make a more significant impact.

Generally Sepang is a circuit where an aerodynamically strong car can really stretch its legs. With a number of medium to high speed corners it’s a much more aerodynamic track than Albert Park. This suits the RB7’s strengths.

In Melbourne Red Bull gained much of their advantage in the high speed chicane, which is the only quick section on the Albert Park circuit.

Therefore with more fast corners on the Sepang circuit, there is the prospect that Red Bull’s advantage could be larger than the 0.8 seconds they had over McLaren last time round.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 27:  Race winner Sebastian Vettel (C) of Germany and Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium with second placed Lewis Hamilton (L) of Great Britain and McLaren and third placed Vitaly Petrov of Russia and Renault following the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit on March 27, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Sebastian Vettel; Lewis Hamilton; Vitaly Petrov

2011 Australian GP winner Sebastian Vettel celebrates on the podium with second placed Lewis Hamilton and third placed Vitaly Petrov

However there is also hope for Red Bull rivals, which could be particularly critical this weekend.

The Australian GP proved that the Milton Keynes squad are still down on straight-line speed. This is down to a less powerful Renault engine and a less effective DRS (drag reduction system).

This wasn’t such a major issue in Melbourne. However Sepang features three very long straight where this weakness will be exposed more.

Despite the incredible raw pace of the RB7, one potential flaw that was exposed down under was tyre management.

Out of the front runners McLaren seemed kindest to its rubber. If that pattern carries over to Sepang then McLaren’s advantage in this area could put them closer to Red Bull in race trim at least. With more high speed corners, and much higher track temperatures the tyres are going to be under far more strain.

Red Bull made do without KERS to win the opening race of the season. Opting to not use KERS will leave them much more vulnerable this weekend.

KERS voltage warning. Formula One Testing, Day 1, Valencia, Spain, Tuesday 1 February 2011.

KERS could be decisive in Malaysia

Sepang is much more of a KERS circuit than Albert Park. This isn’t just down to the straights as decisively there is a much longer run down to turn one once the lights go out.

In Melbourne the run was much shorter meaning that by the time Lewis Hamilton was able to activate KERS, which is activated once the car reaches 100kph, it was too late to do anything about Sebastian Vettel’s quick getaway. Even if Red Bull clinches the front row, they could well be swomped by McLaren’s and Ferraris at the start without KERS.

Red Bull’s decision to use KERS will ultimately be based on reliability. Quite rightly they won’t be willing to risk a DNF on one or even both its cars.

Unfortunately Sepang is one of toughest tracks on reliability due to the heat. Teams pioneer plenty of cooling solutions on the cars to try and cope with the problem.

Though, very often it’s proven not to be enough.  We have seen plenty of retirements here over the years.

Christian Horner during practice for the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone on June 9, 2010, in Northampton, England.

Christian Horner

If something is going to go wrong with Red Bull’s KERS, it’s likely to be in the humidity of Malaysia.

Christian Horner told BBC Five Live: “Obviously the motivation and desire is to have it onto the car as quickly as possible, but we won’t compromise the performance of the car or the potential reliability of the car if we feel that the system isn’t race-sturdy yet.”

McLaren will have been delighted with their result in Melbourne following a tough winter.

This weekend there is every chance that they can give Red Bull a tougher time. Despite giving them plenty of performance their new Red Bull-like exhaust system wasn’t full optimised.

The main reason for this is that the version we saw at the last race was made from titanium. This weekend we will be seeing an updated version made from carbon fibre.

2011 Australian Grand Prix - Saturday Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia 26th March 2011. World Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic ref: Digital Image _MG_0015

McLaren showed that they are contenders with a solid showing in Melbourne

This may not sound significant but carbon fibre is lighter than titanium so this should immediately make the car faster. Furthermore the combination of the Mercedes engine, strong KERS and DRS should ensure McLaren will be very rapid down the long straights.

Ferrari’s main problem at the first race was not getting the tyres up to temperature, which caused the team’s poor qualifying performance. Therefore we were never able to see the true pace of the car, despite a few promising glimpses in the race when both cars found some clean air, whilst fighting through the field.

Speaking about Ferrari’s one lap performance Pat Fry says: “Much of that was down to how our car uses its tyres, so a major part of the analysis has focussed on looking at our one-lap performance, when compared to long run performance in the race.”

Certainly you can count on tyre-warm being less of an issue at a circuit, where we are likely to see track temperatures nudging the 50 degree barrier. This should allow Ferrari to unlock the full potential we saw during winter testing.

Pirelli tyres

Sepang set to test Pirelli tyres

As well as the potential of a more competitive weekend we could see more in the way of action than we did in Melbourne.

The Pirelli tyres didn’t really pose the big headaches in Melbourne that many were anticipating. This could all change on a track that is far more punishing on the tyres.

Pirelli Motorsport director Paul Pembrey says: “We were absolutely thrilled by our grand prix debut in Australia, but we’re aware that Malaysia should be a very different proposition, with higher temperatures and increased degradation.”

We could well get our first glimpse of the crazy races that were anticipated with the Pirelli tyres. Three to four stops are expected in the race. Tactically this could make the race much harder than Melbourne was, meaning a higher probability of mistakes and unpredictability.

There is no doubt the drivers’ jobs will be far more difficult, and that tyre preservation will be the talk of the weekend as opposed to warming them up, unlike in the cool Aussie conditions.

Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W01. Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Saturday 3 April 2010.

When it rains in Malaysia it tends to pour...

The placing of the DRS overtaking zone on the long pit straight could help us witness the full potential of the system. Unlike in Melbourne, the corner leading onto the straight is a slow corner where cars can follow each other. Furthermore the corner at the end of the straight is a heavy braking zone, with plenty of room for passing.

Plus we can’t talk about Malaysia without discussing the weather. With the race and qualifying not taking place till late afternoon the risk of thunderstorms and heavy rain is far higher. Both sessions could be affected.

If this happens we could end of seeing some very interesting results, just as we did last season.

Overall it would take a very brave man to bet against Red Bull this weekend, and with more high speed corners they could be even quicker than in Melbourne. Despite this, don’t expect them to have it all their own way.

It’s going to be critical that they can use their KERs system. The moment on Friday evening when they decide to use it or not, may just prove the most decisive moment of the weekend.

It’s very likely that Red Bull will be dominant in qualifying. However the high risk of rain and the much higher tyre wear expected could level the playing field come race day. I just get a feeling that come race day a combination of these two factors could help Jenson Button snatch race victory from Red Bull.

Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/25. Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Friday 2 April 2010.

Jenson Button is the author's tip for top honours on Sunday

Top 8 Prediction

1.       Jenson Button
2.       Sebastian Vettel
3.       Mark Webber
4.       Lewis Hamilton
5.       Vitaly Petrov
6.       Sergio Perez
7.       Felipe Massa
8.       Rubens Barrichello

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