Malaysian GP: Can Red Bull bounce back and stop McLaren surge?

Sepang track map

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Mar.21 (Preview by James Rossi) If the Australian Grand Prix was the answer to our questions regarding the competitiveness of the 2012 field, we need to ask better questions. As we move on from the opening event of the year, the true pecking order of the F1 teams remains vague as we head to Sepang for the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Grid girls. Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday 10 April 2011.

F1 welcome in Malaysia

The Sepang circuit is situated in southern Malaysia, in the state of Selangor.Envisaged from the design stage as an F1 suitable racing circuit, it is situated just a stone’s throw from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. As one would expect at this time of year, afternoon thunderstorms are common, and the event has been thrown into chaos on numerous occasions due to the unpredictable nature of the weather.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it was Sebastian Vettel who claimed top spot in the 2011 running of the Malaysian Grand Prix. He was followed home by Jenson Button and Nick Heidfeld, after front row starter Lewis Hamilton suffered from tyre degradation and a penalty for colliding with his old nemesis, Fernando Alonso. The grand prix is possibly best remembered for Vitaly’s Petrov unfortunate retirement, as he flew over a bump in the grass and found himself with a dislodged steering wheel upon his landing.

There is still no clear picture of the exact pecking order in F1 after last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. Whilst we have learnt that McLaren have closed the gap to Red Bull, that Mercedes have pioneered a device that can only be labelled as a ‘Super DRS’, and that Lotus are potentially as fast as McLaren & Red Bull, there is still no clear hierarchy. Further down the field, Sauber and Williams have seemingly made drastic gains, whilst the three relatively new teams have either stagnated or gone backwards.

2009 Malaysian Grand Prix - Sunday  Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia  5th April 2009  Kazuki Nakajima, Williams FW31 Toyota. Action.  Photo: Charles Coates/LAT Photographic  ref: Digital Image _26Y8838

Rain not uncommon at Sepang

With the heat that Malaysia is noted for, tyre management will be key during the 56 laps of the grand prix. This may favour Lotus as they have struggled with tyre heating issues, with both drivers sounding confident in the potential of the E20. Unfortunately, we were not treated to this unlocked potential due to Kimi Raikkonen’s race in traffic and Romain Grosjean’s retirement at the hands of Pastor Maldonado. It is suspected that with all things being equal, the Enstone squad could seriously challenge the top 4 of last weekend.

With such disparity between qualifying and race pace, which was made evident last Sunday, the competitiveness of the field in Malaysia should be as high as it has ever been. Good high-speed performance is necessary in Sepang, with the long, sweeping turns 3, 5, 6 and the quick 12 and 13 testing aerodynamic efficiency heavily.

It remains to be seen whether Red Bull still holds any advantage in this respect, with the loss of their advanced EBD seeming to hit them hard in Australia. Conversely, the McLaren MP4-27 is said to have drastically improved in this respect, with Lewis Hamilton noting during the third Barcelona test that the car felt “very good” through the fast turn 5. Also to be noted is the fact that both McLaren drivers were forced to save fuel and were not maximising the race pace of their machinery during the season opener, so do not be surprised to witness an even faster Button & Hamilton this weekend.

18.03.2012 Melbourne, Australia - xxxxxxxxxx - Formula1 World Championship Round 01 at Melbourne Albert Park +++ © Copyright: RACE-PRESS.com

Midfield battle should be a cracker

Impressive midfield runners Sauber, Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso will all hope to capitalise on their steps forward in performance exhibited Down Under. Sauber in particular look a strong bet due to their ability to preserve tyre life (especially in the hands of the super-smooth Sergio Perez), as do Williams who have improved markedly on the travesty that was 2011. The problem with Australia was that there were too many cars out of position or suffering from retirements to make a definitive conclusion regarding who lies where. This weekend will go a long way towards answering what questions we still have. What price another midfield surprise come qualifying and the race?

With so many what’s and if’s floating around from Melbourne, the second round of the season is stirring up more anticipation than the first. The unpredictable Hamilton will have been poked with a very large stick by Sunday’s result, and F1 hath no fury like a Lewis Hamilton scorned. LCH can cope with pressure, without a doubt. A quick look back to the Japanese Grand Prix of 2007 in truly atrocious conditions, with a world championship on the line, should answer that question. Whether he can raise his game, both mentally and in his driving, to match and beat a team mate who is at the very top of his game, will be a genuine marker of his abilities as a sportsman.

The podium (L to R): Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren, Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing and Nick Heidfeld (GER) Lotus Renault GP.  Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday 10 April 2011.

The 2011 podium (L to R): Jenson Button (second) Sebastian Vettel (winner) and Nick Heidfeld (third)

Expect to see a thrilling qualifying session on Saturday, with Mercedes taking the fight to both McLaren and Red Bull with their (at the time of writing) legal innovative DRS system which should give them a huge performance boost on the long straights of the Sepang International Circuit.

Not much in the way of development can take place in the space of a week, between long-haul events, so we can expect a relatively settled order in terms of who will challenge and who will make up or shake up the midfield.

As is to be expected, wet weather is predicted for all three days of the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend. However, with the exact location and timing of weather cells uncertain, we could see an unstable forecast right up to lights-out on Sunday. It is expected that the arrangements in regard to DRS zones will remain as they were in 2011; with the start/finish straight providing the sole opportunity to utilise the rear-wing stalling device during the race.

We expected our questions to be answered last weekend. We left with our answers being questioned. Expect another weekend of intrigue and excitement.

My Prediction:

Qualifying: 1. Hamilton 2. Schumacher 3. Button
Race: 1. Hamilton 2. Button 3. Raikkonen/Vettel

You can find more personal insight from James Rossi on Twitter: @JRMondo

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