• Malaysian Grand Prix

Another Red Bull rout?

Laurence Edmondson April 7, 2011
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Albert Park, which hosted the first race of the season in Australia, and Sepang, which will host this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix, couldn't be more different. One is a low-to-medium speed parkland circuit with limited run off and bumps, the other is a 20-metre wide, purpose-built circuit with some of the fastest corners on the calendar. Yet, of the current crop of F1 cars, the Red Bull RB7 is the weapon of choice at both tracks. It's an ominous sign to see such a complete package so early in the season, but there are good reasons to believe McLaren and Ferrari will be closer this weekend. What's more the key ingredient for unpredictability is only ever a flash thunderstorm away in Malaysia, meaning Sunday's race might not be as straight forward as Red Bull would like.

In Form

Vitaly Petrov proved he is more than just a pay driver in Australia with a brilliant performance and the first F1 podium of his career. He'd shown clear signs of potential in his debut year, but the big concern for Renault was his inconsistency from race to race. This weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix takes place on one of the toughest driver's circuits on the calendar, with intense heat, humidity and unpredictable conditions. A solid points finish in Sepang will be crucial if he wants to continue to ride the wave of good publicity he caught two weeks ago in Melbourne.

Out of Form

Mark Webber's performance in Australia was one of the most surprising of the weekend. He was over 0.8 seconds off team-mate Sebastian Vettel in qualifying and finished 38 seconds adrift of the lead Red Bull on Sunday. The root of the problem appeared to be unusually high tyre degradation, which forced him to change tyres before any other driver and make three visits to the pits in total. Christian Horner admitted there were "a few things set-up-wise that certainly wouldn't have helped Mark and all those elements have been changed for Malaysia, where we'd expect the two of them to be much closer together". But if Webber doesn't close the gap then more serious questions will start to be asked.

Kamui Kobayashi will be out to score his first points of 2011 after disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix © Sutton Images
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One to watch

Sauber left Australia under a cloud after both C30s' rear wings were found in breach the regulations. Any performance gain may have been minimal but rules are rules and the team accepted as much. Nevertheless the car was quick and Kamui Kobayashi, although beaten by his team-mate in the race due to a better strategy, qualified in the top ten and will be keen to set the record straight in Malaysia. The car is clearly easy on its tyres and that will be crucial at Sepang with high levels of degradation predicted.

Talking points

Drag Reduction System
The DRS (also known as the moveable rear wing) looks set to play a bigger role in Malaysia than it did in Australia. Melbourne's short pit straight with relatively quick corners at either end did not lend itself to the new device, although several drivers still used it successfully. This weekend the hairpins at the beginning and end of Sepang's long pit straight (assuming that's where the DRS zone is placed) should play into the hands of the chasing driver. The big question is how long the FIA should make the zone, as opening up the entire straight could make overtaking too easy.

Tyre degradation
Pirelli's hard working technicians came away from their first grand prix weekend with their heads held high. The new tyres withstood 58 laps of abuse in Melbourne and resulted in a wide range of strategies from Sergio Perez's one-stopper to the three stop sprints adopted by the Ferraris and Webber. There's no doubt that Sepang will be a tougher test, with Pirelli predicting that the circuit's high-speed corners and hotter temperatures will rule out a one-stop strategy. The technicians will also be keeping one eye on the weather radar as there is a very high chance that the orange-lettered full wet tyres will make their race debut.

Afternoon thunderstorms
For the second year in a row the Malaysian Grand Prix will start at 1600 local time. In 2009 it started an hour later but ended in disaster when the heavens opened 30 minutes into the race and brought proceedings to a premature end. Last year everything went to plan, but the final third of the race is still likely to clash with one of Kuala Lumpur's notorious afternoon thunderstorms.

Red Bull's endplates appear to be running lower than their competitor's at high speed © Getty Images
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Red Bull's runaway pace
If the Red Bull is as quick as the rest of the paddock fears it is, then Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber should dominate a dry race this weekend. Such a result would likely spur closer scrutiny of Red Bull's front wing, which appears to run lower to the ground at high speed than its rival's. However, the only thing we know for certain about the wing is that it has passed all the scrutineering tests thrown at it in Australia, meaning the boffins from Milton Keynes are doing something clever. If the other teams could copy the design they almost certainly would, as some observers believe the advantage is worth as much as 0.5 seconds per lap.

Fast facts

  • There have only been three safety car periods in the history of the Malaysian Grand Prix, two of which came out after downpours
  • Michael Schumacher has taken five pole positions at Malaysia and more race wins than any other driver with three to his name
  • The official lap record is 1:34.223, set by Juan Pablo Montoya during the race in 2004. However, in qualifying trim cars have gone over a second faster
  • Kuala Lumpur's average monthly rainfall for April is 10.205 inches, while the average temperature is 33.1C

Trivia

  • On non-grand prix weekends, Sepang's 'double-straight' layout allows the circuit to be divided easily into two, shorter, 'north' and 'south' configurations. Two races can be run simultaneously, if required
  • The circuit is built on the site of a former oil palm plantation and its construction required more than nine million cubic metres of earth to be moved. 5000 palm trees were planted to replace those lost and improve the circuit's environment
  • Sepang is known for its high-speed corners, the fastest and most challenging are turns 12 and 13 which are taken downhill at 170mph before the drivers drop four gears in the difficult braking zone for turn 14
  • Alex Yoong remains the only Malaysian to have competed in Formula One race. He started 14 grands prix for Minardi over the 2001-02 seasons, achieving a best finish of seventh at the '02 Australian GP

The Circuit

Hermann Tilke's second and, some say, best Formula One circuit has hosted the Malaysian Grand Prix since 1999. But while the track is a hit with the drivers due to its high-speed corners and overtaking opportunities, the facilities have come under fire in recent years for being a bit shabby. Nevertheless, the circuit has a contract to host the race until 2015 with Petronas onboard as a title sponsor. The prime overtaking spots are at turn one, turn four and turn 15.

FIA driver steward: Emanuele Pirro will make his second appearance as an F1 steward this weekend

© ESPNF1
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Weather

Rain storms will almost certainly feature on all three days, the only question is whether they will interrupt a live session. What the teams and drivers can be certain of is very high levels of humidity, which forces drivers to make special preparations ahead of the race to combat the sheer quantities of fluid they lose through sweat. Some drivers wear special liquid-cooled vests, while others resort to dunking their overalls in a bucket of ice water before the race. Describing the level of excursion on race day, David Coulthard once said: "It's like having to do some physical exercise in a sauna, and unless it was having sex, I cannot imagine why anyone would want to do anything in a sauna."

Betting

After trouncing the rest of the field in Australia, Sebastian Vettel is the runaway favourite to win on Sunday with odds of 11/10. His team-mate Mark Webber is 5/1 and worth a punt now that Red Bull claims to have an understanding of his problems from Australia. Lewis Hamilton is 4/1, ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso (11/2) and team-mate Jenson Button (9/1). Three-time winner Michael Schumacher is 40/1.

ESPN Prediction

Kuala Lumpur was hit by thunderstorms at roughly 1600 (the local start time) on Tuesday and Wednesday this week with more bad weather predicted over the weekend. As a result ESPN has plumped for the leftfield choice of Lewis Hamilton, on the basis of his skills in the wet and the promise the McLaren showed in Australia.

Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1 Laurence Edmondson grew up on a Sunday afternoon diet of Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell and first stepped in the paddock as a Bridgestone competition finalist in 2005. He worked for ITV-F1 after graduating from university and has been ESPNF1's deputy editor since 2010