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The ups and downs of the Malaysian Grand Prix

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The ups and downs of the Malaysian Grand Prix

By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Vettel again in a league of his own
  • Some you win, some you lose
  • 59 pit stop thanks to Pirelli tyres
  • DRS showed its full potential

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing again showed who’s the boss in Formula One during the Malaysian Grand Prix. The by Adrian Newey designed RB7 was, again even without the use of KERS, the fastest car on the grid. The Malaysian Grand Prix had many surprises, one of them being it stayed dry on Saturday and Sunday, and the water ballet the weather forecasters had promised never took place. Instead spectators were offered a dry race in which a few drivers had wings, some suddenly got wings, others lost wings, and one man in particular, thought he had wings.

Vettel already earned his wings when he two weeks ago very convincingly and in similar style won the Australian Grand Prix, leaving his competitors far behind, who were wondering how to stop the Red Bull brigade. Despite the fact the FIA has given all teams adjustable wings this season, the DRS or Drag Reduction System, drivers were not able to catch up with Vettel who again showcased his talent with the blistering pace he had all weekend.

Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: xpb.cc

For Vettel the race looked easy, he stormed to pole on Saturday and led the pack from the moment the lights turned green on Sunday at 16:00hrs local time, until the finish flag was waved 97 minutes and 3 seconds later. Vettel made a flawless start and was able to get away first, while behind him others were dicing for the best position to enter the first turn. The only one who came close to Vettel was Hamilton, but much to Vettel’s surprise, a black and gold car posed the only threat for the 2010 champion.

“The start was crucial. I thought it was a very good start, but then I saw Lewis [Hamilton] lining up behind me. I was surprised going into Turn One, as all of a sudden I saw something black in my mirrors -- I knew it was a Lotus,” Vettel later said. He was of course referring to Nick Heidfeld, who deputises for the injured Robert Kubica this season. Heidfeld had a dream start, and managed to position his Lotus Renault on the outside of Turn One, Hamilton didn’t want to risk everything that early in the race and backed off.

It was difficult to defend without risking hitting Button or Heidfeld

Lewis Hamilton

Heidfeld, who suddenly got wings this weekend, started from sixth position, “I had a great start just like in Australia, and did not expect to make up so many positions. I moved up to P2, making up four places. After that I did my best to follow Vettel but he was much quicker.” Hamilton had a similar version of his start. “At the start, I was on the outside going into the first corner, I got squeezed and it was difficult to defend without risking hitting Button or Heidfeld, the Briton said after the race.

Heidfeld’s team mate Vitaly Petrov also had a good start and overtook both Ferraris, but a few laps later he ran wide and both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso passed him. The other Red Bull driver, Australian Mark Webber, had a bad start and lost six places, and after a thrilling dice with the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi he lost another place. “The clutch didn’t behave itself initially,” Webber said. “That cost me a bit of time, but the biggest problem was KERS. When I pushed the KERS button as we left the grid, nothing happened and I was swamped. I ended the first lap in 10th place.”

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the race was this time decided at the first corner after the start. Vettel was away first and won the race, Nick Heidfeld was in second place after Turn One, and finished in third place. Heidfeld, who lost his race seat in 2010 and had settled for a testing role for Mercedes and Pirelli, was perhaps the happiest man of the day, and so was Lotus Renault, who scored their second third place of the season.

Start of the race, Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing and Lewis Hamilton, McLaren Mercedes
Start of the race, Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing and Lewis Hamilton, McLaren Mercedes

Photo by: xpb.cc

”I lost a couple of places at my first pit stop, but it’s clear we had really good pace and we were able to fight with the cars ahead,” Heidfeld said. He agreed fate had helped him a little, “I got lucky with Alonso having a problem, but it was great fun fighting and getting ahead of Hamilton.” Team principal Eric Boullier was equally happy, “It’s another great reward for us, especially after the tough start to the weekend. It’s good to be on the podium again, although it is disappointing to have lost one car with less than ten laps to go.”

Mixed fortunes, some you win, some you lose

He of course referred to Petrov’s incident on lap 52. The Russian thought he had wings, but he needs a bit more practice on his landings. Petrov ran slightly wide, he then ran even wider when he was caught out by the marbles on the outside of the corner. He ploughed through the grass, kept his foot on the accelerator, hit a bump and his car got wings and became airborne. He made such a hard landing on the curbs that the steering column mounting broke, and he slid helplessly into the polystyrene 150 meter sign at the opposite end of the corner.

Indeed mixed fortunes for the ones who did well in Australia, Petrov was on the podium two weeks ago, just like Hamilton, who finished second in Melbourne. But it wasn’t the day for the 2008 champion, and things went from bad to worse. Hamilton got stuck behind Heidfeld, and even with KERS and DRS activated, he could not match the straight-line speed of the Lotus Renault. After his first stop Hamilton got problems with his tyres, “My tyres kept dropping off; we pitted earlier than was optimal, and ran out of tyres at the end. I’d hoped to make the end of the race on a set of used Primes, but they didn’t last so we had to pit right at the end of the race.”

Because of Hamilton’s problems, Button this weekend had the upper hand, and took the honors for McLaren by landing second position, in Melbourne he only scored eight points with sixth position. Button took advantage of the slow pit stop Hamilton made, and he rejoined the race ahead of his team mate after the McLaren crew didn’t make any mistakes during his pit stop.

It was tough to clear people when I didn’t have KERS

Mark Webber

Webber again saw his chances evaporate during the start, something that happened to him last season a number of times as well. The loss of KERS was really a problem for him, “For the first three or four laps, I was trying to pass people, but they were coming back at me on the straights; it was tough to clear people when I didn’t have KERS.” And added, “It wasn’t our day today and I was disappointed not to get on the podium. It was close, but not close enough.” Webber fought back and during the closing stages of the race he overtook Massa and closed in on Heidfeld, but not close enough to challenge him for third place.

Not close enough is the same that can be said of Ferrari, who again could not impress with the scarlet red Ferrari F150° Italia. But it was now Massa, and not Alonso who was the fastest of the two Ferrari drivers. Massa certainly needed a change of luck, his position at Ferrari is at stake, the Brazilian has had many setbacks after his accident in Hungary in 2009. At the start he jumped Alonso and he stayed ahead of him during the opening rounds of the race.

After a badly executed pit stop he lost a few positions, but after Alonso’s unfortunate incident with Hamilton he was again ahead of him, and this time there was no ‘Fernando is faster than you’ message from the pit wall, simply because during the race at least, the message from the Brazilian was: ‘Felipe is faster than you Fernando’. ”It was a shame to have lost valuable seconds at my first pit stop: but for that problem, I could have fought my way to a podium place,” an optimistic Massa said.

Felipe Massa lost several places after a bad pit stop
Felipe Massa lost several places after a bad pit stop

Photo by: xpb.cc

Alonso, who had a problem with his DRS wing which didn’t function anymore, also was disappointed, “We were not lucky: if the moveable rear wing had worked all the time, I could easily have passed Hamilton down the straight, but instead we had to fight hard.” And added, “He defended very well and, unfortunately, we touched: that broke my wing and I had to come back into the pits to change it, thus losing any chance of getting to the podium.”

Although Ferrari certainly have some catching up to do, Alonso nevertheless remained optimistic. “I am happy with this race: not with the result but because we were finally competitive, capable of fighting wheel to wheel for a place on the podium. This is further motivation for the forthcoming race in China.”

Retirements for the newest teams

Hispania Racing, HRT, this time passed the 107% rule with flying colors and had no problems qualifying. The new front wing passed the FIA scrutineering and arrived at Sepang just in time for qualifying. The cash-strapped Spanish team had to abandon the race after both drivers encountered technical problems. Narain Karthikeyan became the first victim, he had engine problems and the team decided to play it safe, and asked Karthikeyan to park his F111 in the grass along the track. “There were some problems with the water temperatures so we had to abandon in order to not damage the engine,” the Indian said.

His team mate Vitantonio Liuzzi came considerably closer to the finish line, but again it wasn’t to be. Liuzzi felt the car was dangerously unstable at the rear, and he pitted twice so his crew could examine the car from close up. They found the rear wing was damaged and 8 laps shy of the finish line Liuzzi was forced to stop for safety reasons.“ It’s a shame because we had a really good start where I was able to pass a few cars. After that, it was a really complicated race because the car was struggling with the rear end, it was drifting a lot during the three stints we did,” the Italian said.

Marussia Virgin driver Timo Glock did finish the race, albeit in last position. His Belgium team mate Jerome d’Ambrioso was less fortunate and made a small mistake, hit the curbs very hard and the onboard computer switched the engine off, as it is supposed to do after a violent impact. “I was able to keep up a good pace, especially in the second and third stints, so I must say I'm pretty happy about that. But this is just the beginning and I have to keep on working and improving all the time,” the 25-year old rookie said after his second Formula One race.

15th position for Heikki Kovalainen
15th position for Heikki Kovalainen

Photo by: xpb.cc

For Team Lotus it was their home Grand Prix, during qualifying they again were the fastest of the newest teams. During the race Jarno Trulli had a clutch problem and was forced to park his car in the team’s garage. Heikki Kovalainen finished in 15th position and was satisfied with the result. “That was a pretty good race all round. The balance was good on both sets of tyres and I think the strategy worked well for us - we pitted at the right times and we didn't have any problems all afternoon,” the Finn commented after the race.

More disappointments and retirements

It was a disastrous weekend for Williams, and even the most experienced driver on the grid, Rubens Barrichello, was unable to get the car up to speed. Rubinho (little Rubens), as his Portuguese nickname is, was utterly disappointed after two races. He got a puncture after Adrian Sutil in his Force India had hit his left rear tyre with his front wing, the tyre completely fell apart and Barrichello had to limp all the way back to the pit for new tyres. On lap 22 he had to retire due to a hydraulic problem.

He admitted it was a ‘horrible’ start of the season, “It's sad, but after two trials, that is the right word, we expected a stronger start of the season.” And added, “I think there is potential to discover in this car, but the first two races have been horrible.” His team mate Pastor Maldonado was the very first driver to abandon the race, his engine misfired and after eight laps the Venezuelan driver had to call it a day.

I think there is potential to discover in this car, but the first two races have been horrible

Rubens Barrichello

Mixed fortunes also for the Sauber team, after the disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix the Swiss team finally scored six points, courtesy of Japanese driver Kamui Kobayshi, who finished in seventh place. He was on an unusual two stop strategy, which in the end paid off. “The strategy with only two stops was a little bit risky, but I think it worked out quite well. The difficulty about unusual strategies is in the race you find yourself always on a different pace to the competition. I had some nice and fair battles with Webber and Schumacher, which I enjoyed,” the always friendly and patient Kobayashi explained.

Mexican Sauber driver Sergio Perez, who made an impressive debut in Australia, was less fortunate, a part of Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso hit the floor of his Sauber, the fire extinguisher went off and the electrics cut off, forcing him to retire after 23 laps.

Mercedes fails to impress

Mercedes GP had high hopes ahead of the season, and after their retirement from the Australian Grand Prix, the German outfit had hoped their fortune would turn at the Sepang International Circuit. But the Silver Arrow lacks speed, especially during qualifying. Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher called it a ‘straight forward’ race, but had to fight with Kobayashi, who was either ahead of him or directly behind him during 56 laps.

Nico Rosberg lost four places during the first lap, and finished in 12th position. Rosberg about his race, “I had a poor start and lost positions which made it very difficult to try and get into the points. Our race pace was not good enough, and it was very difficult to push, so unfortunately we could not perform at the level that we wanted to here.”

The midfield teams: Force India and Toro Rosso

Sutil’s race started with an incident when he ran into the back of Barrichello’s Williams, he damaged his front wing and had to pit. The young German was also on a two-stop strategy, but although he made a good recovery, he only finished in 11th position. “We had a two-stop strategy, I went into the pits for the soft tyres, then another set of hard and another set of soft, and made them last well, which is positive. We could have been in for a much better finishing position, which is a shame. Overall it was a disappointing weekend for me,” he said.

Paul di Resta, Force India F1 Team pit stop
Paul di Resta, Force India F1 Team pit stop

Photo by: xpb.cc

Paul di Resta was satisfied with the performance of the Force India, and this time without any help scored his second world championship point in his short career. “I am quite happy I must say, the team did a great job with the strategy. I just could not hold off Michael at the end, he had fresher tyres and we had to stop a bit earlier for my third stop than predicted. But I also did not want to risk the championship point as well,” he said about his race.

Red Bull’s Italian sister team Toro Rosso also failed to impress, Buemi was penalized for speeding in the pit lane, and ventilated his frustrations after the race. “I had the impression that the pit lane speed limiter had not been engaged. I immediately pressed it again, which deactivated it, so I speeded in the pit lane and picked up a ten second stop-go penalty, which I felt was a bit severe, as usually you get a drive-through penalty which loses you less time.”

His Spanish team mate Jaime Alguersuari was puzzled why his car was so slow, “I need to analyse this race with the engineers, because to be honest, I don’t really understand what happened: we were slow and the tyre degradation was very high, higher than on Friday. I struggled to clean the graining off the front tyres and was losing performance with every passing lap.” Buemi finished in 13th and Alguersuari in 14th place.

Pirelli kept their promise

Pirelli had promised all teams had to make at least three pit stops, and after 10 laps the first drivers came in for fresh rubber. McLaren driver Jenson Button is a specialist in preserving tyres. “Today’s race was all about looking after the tyres. On the way to the grid, I purposely took a lot of front wing out of the car, which was a mistake because I had massive understeer for the first stint, which also hurt the rear tyres. I just got the balance wrong,” the Briton said.

“So at each pit stop, I dialled in more front wing and my pace kept getting better and better. At the end, the Prime tyre was really working for me. I knew Lewis had a problem in one of his pit stops and that I would be able to come out in front of him, but my pace was very good anyway,” he explained.

The Malaysian GP turned into a battle of strategy and bravery

Paul Hembery

All drivers started on the soft compound, and finished the race on the hard compound. In total the FIA recorded 59 pit stops, Alonso, Hamilton and Webber made four stops, only a handful of drivers managed to finish the race on a two-stop strategy. Kobayashi managed his tyres the best, he finished in seventh position with only two stops, Hamilton made his fourth -- and the final pit stop of the race -- on lap 52.

Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery was a happy man. “Thankfully the weather stayed dry, which meant that we were able to see our tyres performing without the rain factor. The Malaysian Grand Prix turned into a battle of strategy and bravery from start to finish, where choosing the right tyres at the right time was absolutely crucial,” he said.

Hamilton versus Alonso

For Hamilton and Alonso the race became a huge disappointment, while Hamilton finished in second position in Australia, he crossed the finish line in seventh position in Malaysia, but was demoted to eighth place after the FIA Stewards penalized him after the race for weaving in an attempt to keep the Ferrari of Alonso behind him. He was handed a post-race drive-through penalty, which meant 20 seconds were added to his time. “I knew I was going to get a penalty. I'm not surprised,” he commented. “It's racing. I'm not going to argue or disagree with the penalty. From my side I'm not allowed to move more than once. Do I class it as dangerous? No, but that's the rule. Twenty seconds is not such a bad penalty for it,” he added.

Alonso was handed the same penalty for dangerous driving after he had crashed into the back of Hamilton’s McLaren -- which also meant he had to pit to replace his damaged front wing. The Spanish Ferrari driver wasn’t really impressed and shrugged his shoulders after both drivers had visited the stewards of the race. “It doesn't change positions, so there is no a big drama. I tried to overtake, we touched each other and unfortunately I broke the front wing and had to pit again, and I lost the podium possibility. But in the next race I will try again,” he said.

The action of the stewards might seem a bit strange, on the one hand the FIA wants to create more overtaking opportunities with KERS and DRS, but on the other hand, when drivers get involved in something that is nothing more than a race incident, they are penalized. But it is what Hamilton said, if the regulations state a driver is not allowed to change position more than once, he will get a penalty, the same goes for dangerous driving. Both drivers accepted their penalty, but Hamilton and Alonso both hinted they would certainly not change their driving style.

KERS and DRS

These two acronyms already seem to dominate this year’s Formula One season, but for Red Bull in particular, KERS is more a curse than a blessing. Red Bull again played hide-and-seek when asked about the KERS system this weekend, Vettel initially told he had grabbed his second pole position of the season on Saturday thanks to the energy recovery system on his energy drinks sponsored car. But during the race it became apparent the team wasn’t able to use it due to reliability problems they had encountered earlier that weekend and both drivers were warned several times not to use KERS.

Red Bull needs KERS in China
Red Bull needs KERS in China

Photo by: xpb.cc

Newey has admitted the system still causes problems. “The reality is that it is a system in its infancy. We are not a manufacturer team so we are having to develop KERS ourselves, which has not been our area of expertise in the past,” he said. And added, “We are also doing it on a limited resource, limited budget and with limited experience, so we are on a rapid learning curve. How long it takes us to get to the top of that learning curve remains to be seen.” Which means Red Bull will still have problems with KERS next weekend in China.

The DRS wing, or ‘driver adjustable bodywork’ as it is referred to in the FIA regulations, this time showed its full potential. The FIA had set up the detection zone just before the last turn that leads to the start-finish straight, which was designated as the activation zone. The system worked perfect, and the many overtaking manoeuvres that were seen on Sunday, can be attributed to the adjustable wing. It also led to funny situations, as the entrance to the last turn is also a perfect place to overtake. A few drivers who were closer than one second behind the driver in front of them, had already overtaken their opponent before they entered the activation zone on the start-finish straight, and still could use the DRS wing until they reached the end of the straight.

For TV spectators the DRS wing could be seen in action thanks to many rearwards facing onboard cameras, and it is a device that is simple to understand, one moment the upper element of the wing is opened, and the next moment it closes again, and even a ten-year old understands a car goes faster when the wing is ‘opened’. The FIA is still experimenting with the set-up of the detection and activation zones, and as each circuit has different characteristics, it can be expected it will work well at one circuit, or not at all on a street circuit like Valencia or Monaco.

Next destination: China

With the back-to-back race in China only a few days away, teams have little or no opportunity to regroup or to test new aero parts, especially the smaller teams don’t have the resources to quickly develop a new aerodynamic package ahead of the race in Shanghai and they will race with the same aero configuration in China. However, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes have vowed they will do their utmost to change their fortune.

China is ready for round three of the F1 2011 Championship
China is ready for round three of the F1 2011 Championship

Photo by: xpb.cc

Ferrari is closing in, the Maranello-based team have last year proved they are able to develop their car very quickly and could soon join the fight for the top three positions. China will also be a test for Lotus Renault who were truly the surprise of the season, and the fans of Kubica can’t help wondering what the injured Pole might have achieved in the black and gold car with the radical forwards pointing exhaust system.

It will be interesting to see whether Red Bull can again dominate a race without KERS, the circuit in China is fast and has a number of long straights where KERS is very useful. One day Red Bull will run out of luck and their failing KERS system seems to be their Achilles heel, all the more reason for Red Bull to solve their reliability problems they have encountered with the energy recovery system. McLaren is very close behind the Austrian team, and both Hamilton an Button have been within reach of their first victory of the season.

Everything is ready for round three of the 2011 Formula One season, the Chinese Grand Prix on April 17, read all about on Thursday at Motorpsort.com


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