• Malaysian Grand Prix preview

Sun or showers in Sepang?

Chris Medland March 21, 2013
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We've finally got some answers to the numerous questions which had built up over the winter, but as always with Formula One there are already many more questions to be asked. If Albert Park's street circuit characteristics were unable to provide a clear picture of the true pecking order, the high-speed Tilkedrome in Malaysia certainly will. We've already got teams in crisis, teams impressing and the same top three drivers from 2012 occupying the first podium of the new season. Not a bad start, eh?

On Form

Not a huge surprise here, but Kimi Raikkonen drove a flawless race in Australia and emerged from a lowly seventh on the grid to take an ultimately dominant victory. The Lotus was obviously easy on its tyres but Raikkonen still had to execute the strategy correctly - which included not getting involved in wheel-to-wheel action with the Ferraris he had caught in the opening stint - and a typically clinical opening lap helped hugely. Raikkonen might try to play down expectations this weekend, but with high temperatures almost certain and a car that is stronger in the wet than its predecessor, he could well be sitting pretty on Sunday once again.

Out of form

There were a few teams disappointed by their respective performances in Melbourne, but none more high-profile than McLaren. Choosing to go for revolution rather than evolution this season has backfired badly so far, with the team openly admitting it didn't expect to be so far off the pace at Melbourne. When a team is getting questions about reverting to its old car, you know it's in trouble, and with only a week between races it is unlikely to find a way out of the mire this weekend...

Jules Bianchi impressed on his grand prix debut, but is the only rookie never to have driven the Sepang circuit © Sutton Images
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One to watch

Not often we look this far back for one to watch, but Jules Bianchi delivered a hugely impressive grand prix debut in Melbourne as he outqualified and comfortably beat his team-mate Max Chilton despite only having a day and a half in the car during pre-season. At one stage it looked like a two-stop strategy would see him threatening the Williams of Valtteri Bottas ahead, but even with having to stop a third time he was the only driver from Marussia and Caterham to not finish two laps down, finishing on the same lap as fellow rookies Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez. That he set the 11th-fastest lap after his late final pit stop - just 0.05s slower than Sebastian Vettel's - tells you all you need to know.

Talking points

McLaren's woes
Ahead of Australia we speculated that McLaren could have been hiding its true pace during the winter and the question mark was over how quick the MP4-28 really was. As it transpired, the team was indeed hiding its pace, for nobody knew just how slow it was going to be in Melbourne. The problems will not be fixed for Malaysia, and in all likelihood it will be the start of the European season before we see significant steps made to close the gap to the front runners. Until then it's damage limitation at McLaren, and pressure on for team boss Martin Whitmarsh.

Weather forecasts
The postponement of qualifying until race day that we saw in Melbourne is a problem we were more likely to see in Malaysia, where thunderstorms bringing torrential rain are common late in the afternoon. Like Australia, qualifying and the race at Sepang both start later in the day in order to cater for European audiences, and as a result both take place when rain is most likely. Last year's race was a thriller as rain fell early on, while in 2009 the monsoon-like conditions and fading light forced the rest to be ended early with half points being awarded.

Tyre usage
Pretty much an ongoing talking point, tyres were the main reason behind the exciting strategic battle in the Australian Grand Prix and, mercifully, the reason that Sebastian Vettel couldn't run away and hide at the start of the race after his one-lap dominance in qualifying. The heat and abrasive nature of the Sepang circuit means Pirelli describes the race as "one of the most demanding weekends for our tyres that we experience all year" and as a result, if teams struggle to get the tyres in the optimum working window then they will really struggle.

ECUs
As if McLaren didn't have enough on its plate with its own car failings, another one of its companies - McLaren Electronic Systems (MES) - has come under scrutiny this week following Mark Webber's poor start in Australia. MES supplies the standard Electronic Control Units (ECUs) for all the teams on the grid but has suffered problems with a new design for this year and a software failure meant there was a lack of telemetry in the Red Bull garage last weekend and Webber's KERS also stopped working. Christian Horner was decidedly unimpressed at McLaren and it even led to a public apology being released, despite Martin Whitmarsh having hinted that the problem was due to the Red Bull set-up.

Trivia

  • When the safety car was deployed due to rain last season, it was the first official safety car period at Sepang in the last ten years. Though the safety car was deployed in 2009, the subsequent red flag meant the race results were taken at the end of lap 31 - before the safety car came out
  • The first Malaysian Grand Prix was held in 1962. It was a Formula Two race and was run on the Thomson Road circuit in Singapore under the moniker of the Malayan Grand Prix
  • This weekend's race will be the 200th of Fernando Alonso's career
  • Jenson Button has appeared the most times at the Malaysian Grand Prix, taking part in 13 of the 14 races held so far

Fast facts

  • This will be the 15th staging of the Malaysian Grand Prix, with the race a permanent fixture on the calendar since 1999
  • Kimi Raikkonen can move clear of Mika Hakkinen as the Finn with the most grand prix wins with victory this weekend; they are currently tied on 20
  • The 660, from pole position to the apex of turn one is the second furthest of the season behind the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona
  • Fernando Alonso's victory at Sepang last season from eighth on the grid ensured he set a new record for winning from the highest starting position at the circuit

Circuit

The first of the new breed of made-to-order Formula One circuits, Sepang is one of Hermann Tilke's better tracks. Fast and flowing, the track is a real test of downforce and offers overtaking opportunities in to turns one, four, nine and fifteen. The three sectors are distinctively different with sector one requiring good braking stability and traction, sector two needing good downforce through high-speed corners and sector three calling for straight-line speed. Though there are some concrete run-off areas on the whole it retains grass and gravel traps to punish mistakes, while the abrasive track surface makes tyre wear a concern for the teams. The two DRS zones will be between turns 15 and 1 - the pit straight - and turns 14 and 15.

FIA driver steward

Former Toleman, Renault, Brabham, Arrows and Lotus driver Derek Warwick will be the driver steward this weekend. Warwick's last appearance in the role was at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2012.

© ESPNF1
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Weather

Australia brought more cool conditions for the teams after cold pre-season, but there is no chance of a repeat in Malaysia as the overnight low is forecast to be 25C at worst over all three days. Temperatures are expected to reach the mid 30s on each day of running, but rain is also forecast to fall too. Thundery showers are predicted throughout the weekend, with the highest chance of rain coming on Sunday.

Betting

It may have been Kimi Raikkonen who won in Australia, but Sebastian Vettel remains the bookies' favourite at 2/1 after his dominant qualifying performance in Melbourne. Raikkonen is available at 7/2, as is Fernando Alonso, while Lewis Hamilton is a good bet at 10/1 and Nico Rosberg even better odds at 18/1. Romain Grosjean is a tempting 9/2 to finish on the podium, but with wet weather expected the best odds by far are on the Toro Rosso drivers who are both 2/1 to finish in the points.

ESPN prediction

We're man enough to admit that we had a shocking week of predictions for Australia, but our confidence has not been dented. With the forecast rain likely to make picking a winner even tougher, ESPN is backing the consistent Fernando Alonso to repeat his victory of 12 months ago.

Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1 Chris Medland, who in his youth even found the Pacific GPs entertaining, talked his way in to work at the British Grand Prix and was somehow retained for three years. He also worked on the BBC's F1 output prior to becoming assistant editor ahead of the 2011 season