• Malaysian Grand Prix preview

Turning up the heat

Chris Medland March 22, 2012
Sebastian Vettel won from pole in Malaysia in 2011 © Getty Images
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The Australian Grand Prix whet the appetite for the new season, and Malaysia now follows hot on its heels to scratch that itch for more racing. In Australia McLaren signalled its intentions to end Red Bull's dominance, Mercedes showed impressive qualifying pace, Lotus confirmed its pre-season form, Fernando Alonso transcended the Ferrari and Williams made a huge leap to the front of the midfield. We've got an extremely close 2012 field and now a tough race to test it.

On Form

There were a number of impressive drives in Australia and while there is a tip of the cap to Fernando Alonso it's Jenson Button who made the biggest statement of the opening weekend. Having lined up alongside his team-mate - the apparently rejuvenated Lewis Hamilton - Button proceeded to beat him in to the first corner and then ease away at the front to such an extent that at one point his lead was over ten seconds. He displayed last year that he is Sebastian Vettel's most consistent challenger, but will need to extract the maximum from the MP4-27 in Malaysia to beat Red Bull again and cement his position as a title favourite.

Out of form

It can only be Felipe Massa. The Ferrari is not a good car at the moment - that is abundantly clear - but Alonso managed to find performance where there didn't seem to be any. On the lap that Massa set his fastest lap in Australia Alonso was 1.6 seconds faster, and he was slipping behind Bruno Senna in a battle for 13th when contact caused his retirement. The team has said Massa will have a new chassis this weekend "to clear up any doubts about the unusual performance of his car during the weekend at Albert Park", and that means no excuses...

Pastor Maldonado had the pace to challenge Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso in Australia © Sutton Images
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One to watch

There will be eyes on a number of drivers up and down the grid after impressive performances in Melbourne, and Pastor Maldonado has been happy to signal his presence. He claimed this week that Williams is ahead of Ferrari and "not far away" from Red Bull and McLaren, and on the basis of Australia he's not wrong. The FW34 was immediately strong in high-speed corners during testing, and Maldonado will have a point to prove after crashing out of sixth place last weekend when harrying Alonso. More solid points could be on the cards.

Talking points

Mercedes DRS It was the biggest talking off-track topic in Australia and will remain so in Malaysia as teams continue to question the legality of the Mercedes DRS-activated rear wing device. While given the 'F-duct' moniker, the device is essentially a pair of inlets in the rear wing which are exposed when the DRS is open. This stalls the rear wing and increases top speed even further, greatly improving Mercedes' qualifying performance at the very least. Its race pace didn't match at Melbourne, but Michael Schumacher insists that was a "one-off" that's been rectified, so both Red Bull and Lotus have been sufficiently concerned to approach the FIA. The governing body continues to insist the device is legal, however, but an official protest could yet be lodged.

Weather Malaysia is renowned for being a tough race for the drivers physically, with the intense heat and humidity playing a major factor. Drivers can lose over three kilos in bodyweight during the race due to the limited amount of drink that can be carried on-board. That humidity can also see thunderstorms and torrential rain hitting the circuit too, with the 2009 race red-flagged before 75% distance due to the rain and fading light. As you can see below, the weather forecast for this weekend could give the teams some headaches again.

Massa's future The Italian press has been quick to jump on Massa's back after the Australian Grand Prix, with one website running a poll to see who should replace him at Ferrari. The car isn't quick but Massa has been unable to get near to Alonso since his accident in Hungary, and patience appears to be running out. Ferrari hasn't sacked a driver mid-season for 20 years though - when Ivan Capelli was replaced with two races remaining - and it would be a major surprise if it didn't give Massa a lot more time to prove himself this season.

Force India has been improving on the track but its owners have concerns off it © Sutton Images
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Force India's ownership As Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher empire continues to struggle financially, the £708,000 it has been ordered to pay Aerolab in outstanding bills will be an annoyance. Of more concern is the potential £4m+ legal costs it could pick up as a result of a separate hearing, which is far from covered by the £21,000 it has recouped as compensation for its intellectual property rights after Aerolab used Force India designs on a wind tunnel model of the first Team Lotus (now Caterham) car in 2009. Force India has an ongoing case against Aerolab and 1Malaysia Racing (Caterham's parent company) in Italy, but any further costs incurred could see Mallya consider allowing Sahara to increase its 42.5% stake in the team.

Trivia

  • Despite the 2009 race being red flagged due to rain, there hasn't been an official safety car period at Sepang in the last ten years. Though the safety car was deployed three years ago, 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
  • The 2009 race is one of only five grands prix not to have been restarted with less than 75% race distance complete and therefore half points awarded
  • The expansive run-off areas and wide track make the Malaysian Grand Prix the least likely race to have a safety car period on the current Formula One calendar

Fast facts

  • The Malaysian Grand Prix has been ever-present on the calendar since 1999, making this the 14th race to be staged at Sepang
  • There were 33 'normal' race overtakes in 2011, and a further 18 moves were made with the help of DRS
  • The 660m from pole position to the apex of turn one is the second furthest of the season behind the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona
  • The highest winning grid position is seventh achieved by Kimi Raikkonen in 2003, while half of the last ten races have been won from pole position

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. 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.

FIA driver steward

Having fulfilled the role in Melbourne, Johnny Herbert stays on as the FIA driver steward for the second consecutive race.

© ESPNF1
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Weather

Having had a rain-affected Friday in Australia, it looks like all three days could be hit by rain in Malaysia. Thunderstorms have been common this week and are forecast to continue throughout the weekend, with potentially torrential downpours. While the chances of rain hover around the 60% mark, the late-afternoon race start increases the odds of a shower.

Betting

All change in the betting odds for the first time in over a year as Lewis Hamilton is favourite for victory at 9/4. Jenson Button is arguably a better bet at 11/4 due to the importance on tyre usage this weekend, with Sebastian Vettel available at the same odds. Mark Webber is a tempting 9/1 after matching Vettel's pace in Australia (and outqualifying his team-mate), while away from a race victory Romain Grosjean is worth a punt at 12/1 to finish on the podium and Bruno Senna a steal at 16/1 for a top six finish in the impressive Williams.

ESPN prediction

While Red Bull is likely to give McLaren a harder time than it did during qualifying last weekend, the need to look after the tyres and chances of rain make Melbourne winner Jenson Button the man to beat.

Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1

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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