If the season-opening Australian Grand Prix gave us a teaser of how the 2011 Formula 1 World Championship season will pan out, then this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix will certainly give us an even better insight.
Without meaning any disrespect to our first host at Albert Park, a race on a purpose-built circuit will always give a better indication of the performance of the cars up and down the grid, where aerodynamic efficiency and cooling will be a key factor in the relative performance of the twelve teams on the grid.
The three big introductions – or reintroductions, as the case may be – to the sport: KERS, the adjustable rear wing, and Pirelli’s high-wearing tyres; will be tested to extremes here. The teams that can manage all three – and deliver a car that will cope with the venue’s unbearable heat – will fair best in Malaysia.
Last year’s race-winner was Sebastian Vettel, who overcome a difficult start to his championship at Bahrain and Australia with a lights-to-flag victory after beating his pole-sitting team-mate Mark Webber off the grid into Turn 1. The victory finally kickstarted Red Bull’s eventual title win, although we all remember that it was anything but a smooth ride to Abu Dhabi.
This year, the momentum is already with Vettel after his easy win at Melbourne. If the circuit can play to the strengths of his Renault-powered RB7 – and more importantly, if the team can get its KERS working properly – then the German would seem a likely candidate for back-to-back wins.
But let’s take a more detailed look at how we think the weekend will pan out…
|2011 Formula 1 Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix
|Date:||10 April 2011||No. Laps||56|
|Lap Length:||5.543km||Race Distance:||310.408km|
|Lap Record:||1:34.223, Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams) – 2004|
The Sepang International Circuit, located just outside Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, was the first in a spate of Hermann Tilke-designed tracks to grace the Formula 1 landscape, and it certainly made a favourable impression when it made its debut in 1999.
The circuit’s incredible width, the mix of high- and low-speed corners and long straights are very much part of the Tilke blueprint familiar to many F1 fans, who’ve now seen more of these track configurations popping up in more unusual locations across the world in the next ten years.
The wide straights that feed onto tight corners have always given fans excellent wheel-to-wheel racing – and the odd collision! – which is supported with a decent mix of hairpin bends and high-speed switchback corners.
Suffice to say, its facilities have perhaps not enjoyed the necessary level of funding in recent years, and maintenance standards have slipped in the last few years, but it remains a popular venue for the Formula 1 fraternity, even if it isn’t particularly well-supported at the ticket gates.
No doubt offering an insight into the difficulties of establishing a foothold in a country where there is little in the way of motorsport heritage, the race largely serves to promote Malaysia as a viable and popular international tourist destination.
As we mentioned before, the circuit’s design has always fostered races where overtaking has been the norm, rather than the exception. However, that is not to say that the past twelve races held here have been edge-of-your-seat thrillers either. There are generally battles up and down the field to keep the fans interested.
Last year’s race saw Mark Webber start from pole in a wet qualifying session that saw many rivals wrong-footed by the conditions and starting well down the order.
But Webber did a poor job defending his starting position into Turn 1 and allowed Vettel (who started from third) to slip through into a race lead he never surrendered. Mercedes GP’s Nico Rosberg took the team’s first podium with third.
The McLarens and Ferraris – who had been caught out by the wet qualifying conditions – staged a great recovery through the field, but Fernando Alonso lost a points finish when his engine blew a few laps from home.
Rookie driver Jaime Alguersuari took his first points’ finish by guiding his Toro Rosso home in ninth place, with the Spaniard earning plaudits for some brave overtaking moves during the race.
What were some of the highlights from previous races at Sepang? Let’s relive a few of the better races…
1999: The inaugural race at Sepang saw Michael Schumacher make his return to racing after being laid off with a broken leg. He thrashed the entire field in qualifying and then surrendered victory to his team-mate Eddie Irvine, who had inherited the mantle of title contender in the German’s absence. Schumi drove a very wide Ferrari to keep Mika Häkkinen at bay in third place. Ferrari was later disqualified for allegedly illegal barge boards, a decision that was later overturned after appeal.
2001: The first of the Malaysian races to be affected by a tropical downpour, the soaked track saw many drivers flying off into the gravel traps. Ferrari made the clever decision to fit intermediate tyres – while almost everyone else opted for wets – which paid off handsomely when the track dried, allowing Schumi to win as he pleased. Fellow rain-master Jos Verstappen drove a brilliant race in the unfancied Arrows to run as high as second, but he faded to finish just outside the points.
2002: A first-corner tangle between Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya saw the Colombian earn a (dubious, many felt) drive-through penalty for his troubles. Ralf Schumacher took a fine win on a one-stop strategy, which would be Williams’ sole race win of the season.
2003: After the last season spent enduring bad luck and a less-than-competitive car, McLaren’s Kimi Räikkönen took the first of his eighteen F1 career wins. Despite it being his only win of the 2003 season, his consistency would see him in the title hunt until the end of the season, although a fourth consecutive crown would go Schumacher’s way…
2009: Another torrential downpour would hit the circuit mid-race, causing the race to be red-flagged and half-points awarded to the eventual winner, Jenson Button. The first-time twilight scheduling of the race – made with the full knowledge that this was the time when monsoon showers were most prevalent – earned plenty of criticism.
Sepang Talking Points
This year’s event will really bring three talking points to the forefront:
Can anyone catch Red Bull? Vettel took his Red Bull to a comfortable victory at Albert Park, and gallingly for their rivals, this was done without the use of KERS, which the team removed due to reliability concerns. The longer straights at Sepang will make this device a must, and a properly-functioning KERS unit could give them a more competitive edge. Of their main rivals, McLaren (who enjoyed a miraculous pick-up in performance in Australia after some dreadful pre-season form) and Ferrari look the most likely to pounce if Red Bull strikes trouble.
Will the Pirelli tyres hold out? contrary to expectation, the ultra-high-wearing Pirelli tyres lasted the distance in Melbourne without the need for an excessive number of pit stops, but it’s widely expected that Malaysia’s high ambient temperatures and the circuit’s higher-speed corners will cause more pit stops in the 56-lap race. Those who have shown the ability to nurse their tyres – Sauber and Team Lotus, in particular, look strong in this facet – might enjoy an advantage…
Will the tropical weather play a part? It doesn’t just rain in Sepang, it positively hoses down. Those of you who remember the 2001 and 2009 races will be well aware of Mother Nature’s best handiwork, and fans who are keen on rain spicing up the action won’t be disappointed if it pays a visit at crucial stages this weekend…
So what do the Richard’s F1 readers and contributors think will happen this weekend?
Matt, Richard’s F1 IndyCar Correspondent
I’m going to give you three off-the-wall predictions for the Malaysian Grand Prix!
1: Alonso qualifies second but gets the jump at the start to fend off Vettel for the whole race.
2: Mark Webber leads from lights to flag.
3: Both Virgin’s and HRT’s qualify, but one or both of the Lotus cars do not.
Vaibhav, Richard’s F1 reader, India
|One possibility for the race could be a major shock by Hispania when they qualify this time with their new front wings.
If and when rain arrives on the track HRT are the one to go for the wet tyres first. In the rain and wet Pirelli tyres they can create an topsy-turvy order and at least finish in the points.
Joseph, Richard’s F1 Technical Contributor
The Red Bulls look like they have a lot of potential. Sepang is a circuit which lends itself quite well to overtaking. I think the advantage of the RB7 won’t be quite as apparent here, whereas the Mercedes powered cars may be able to display good straight line speed on Sepang’s long straights. We also saw that the RB7 wasn’t particularly kind to its tyres in Australia, and Pirelli’s Paul Hembery indicating that we may see three or four stops for tyres being the norm in Malaysia really means it will be a race determined by how well the drivers manage their tyres! Sepang also looks like it will be wet at times, if not the whole weekend, which means we may see the wet weather aces really bring their A-game. I think this weekend is promising for anyone in the top five teams to really challenge the dominance of the Red Bulls, and strategy will become a very important component of the race.
Geoff, Richard’s F1 reader, Australia
I reckon Mark Webber will have a fire lit under him after such a disappointing race at home. He’s really motivated and will be itching to prove he’s no pushover. Look at how he bounced back last year after some tough races to win next time around. Go Webber!
The Form Guide
On paper, Red Bull looks hard to beat, but there are still plenty of unknown factors, and the performance of its rivals was largely masked by a series of other incidents in Melbourne.
Webber will be keen to dust off the cobwebs after an indifferent Australian Grand Prix, and the Sepang circuit – where he has generally performed well – is the ideal location for him to prove he’s not going to settle for a number-two role at Red Bull that quickly. But another poor performance will see the momentum shift Vettel’s way…
McLaren enjoyed a miraculous turnaround in form after simplifying their car’s set-up, and were surprisingly on-the-pace at Albert Park. Quite how the team will fair at the more aero-demanding Sepang circuit remains to be seen, although the team is bringing a host of upgrades to remain in the hunt this weekend.
Ferrari’s troubles were hampered by a lack of qualifying pace in Australia, and this is an area the team will need to work on if it wants a decent result in Malaysia. Felipe Massa, in particular, will need to get his car’s set-up sorted, as it looked quite the handful for him a fortnight ago.
The momentum lies well with Renault, which saw Vitaly Petrov take an outstanding first-time podium at Albert Park. The Russian will be brimful of confidence this weekend, and team-mate Nick Heidfeld – who has enjoyed good results here in the past – will be eager to kick-start his points tally with a solid result here on chief sponsor Group Lotus’ home turf.
Sauber will be arriving at Sepang with a point to prove after it was stripped of its double-points finish at Australia for a rear wing infringement. The Ferrari-powered C30s showed solid pace at Albert Park and its gentleness on its tyres – with Sergio Pérez running the entire race on a single pit stop – could be a big advantage here.
Toro Rosso is another team that could feature in the points’ standings this weekend, with its ‘twin-floor’ STR6 proving particularly quick when its drivers weren’t crashing into other cars or one another. Alguersuari finished in the points here last year, and the Spaniard will be looking to repeat the effort.
Two teams who left Albert Park with a big fat zero in their points’ account were Mercedes GP and Williams, and they’ll be looking to get their campaigns underway with better results this weekend. In the the Silver Arrows corner, Michael Schumacher has taken more victories here than any other driver (three), but he’s unlikely to repeat the effort here and will be satisfied with a points’ finish.
Force India lucked into the points at Melbourne by dint of Saubers disqualification rather than any outright pace, and they’ll need for their rivals to encounter similar issues – or for some wet weather – to be a factor.
And at the bottom of the pile, Team Lotus, Virgin Racing and HRT are all unlikely to feature here, and the impact of their lack of KERS will be revealed. Team Lotus will enjoy the publicity from this being their home race, while Virgin Racing and HRT will simply be hoping to make it onto Sunday’s grid.
As always, Richard’s F1 will be bringing you the best of the on- and off-track action this weekend, so make sure we’re your first port of call for your Malaysian Grand Prix fix!