By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
For round two of the 2011 FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) Formula One World Championship teams and drivers have arrived at the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia. The circuit designed by Hermann Tilke hosted its inaugural Grand Prix in1999, and was won by Eddie Irvine for Ferrari, while Michael Schumacher finished in second place. Schumacher won the race three times, and Fernando Alonso won the race twice. The unpredictable Malaysian climate with its high temperatures, high humidity and torrential rainfalls is a true challenge for man and machine.
The 107 percent qualification rule
Sepang is a high-speed and high-downforce circuit with a few long straights and many high-speed corners, and cars with a lot of grip and down force will most likely benefit. For teams like HRT who didn’t qualify within the 107 percent of the fastest Q1 lap in Australia, this fast circuit will be even more a challenge. HRT Team principal Collin Kolles however, has said qualifying will not be an issue for the struggling Spanish outfit.
”We know that the car has potential and we hope that we will be able to get all updates on the cars. The 107% rule should not be an issue under normal circumstances,” Kolles said. Asked about this weekend’s target he replied: “The target is to do as many laps as possible in free practice in order to prepare for the qualifying session and for the race.”
Both HRT drivers Narain Karthikeyan and Vitantonio Liuzzi have raced on this circuit before, and Liuzzi remains upbeat about his chances this weekend. “The Malaysian Grand Prix has the added factor of extreme weather conditions. I remember last year’s qualifying session which was affected by the rain as a really challenging session,” the Italian said. And he added, “I am really confident and motivated for this race. I’m sure things will be a lot different from Australia because we are better prepared and conscious of what we need to do.”
I’m sure things will be a lot different from Australia because we are better prepared
But not just HRT should be worried, the Russian-Anglo Marussia Virgin team was hoping to fight with the midfield teams this year, but instead had enormous problems finding the right pace in Melbourne. Rookie driver Jerome d’Ambrosio narrowly qualified for his first Formula One race, and was just three-tenths of a second under the 107% time.
Timo Glock has also voiced his concerns about the lack of speed the team had in Australia, and he fears Marussia Virgin could become the next victim of the by now dreaded 107 percent rule. “The others just made massive steps. We are just not able to make these big steps. We didn't believe it in Barcelona [during testing] but now it's quite obvious that we are not where we should be,” the German said. About Melbourne he commented, “At one point we were 105% off, I think, so we had a bit of a margin.” He also knows it won’t be easy in Sepang either, “If the other guys put soft tyres on and really go for it in Q1, we will be massively in trouble.”
Red Bull to prove its real pace
Sepang will be a test for Red Bull Racing as well, many insiders believe they have the fastest car on the grid, but competition is fierce and both Ferrari and McLaren have been working hard to equal the pace of the RB7. The by Adrian Newey designed car has a special exhaust system which generates extra downforce, other teams have copied the exhaust layout and hope to be more competitive in Malaysia. As usual there were comments about the flexibility of the Red Bull front wing, but FIA delegate Charlie Whiting has insisted the wing is legal and teams are now wondering how it can flex and at the same time comply to the FIA regulations.
Red Bull have also announced they will use the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) system in Malaysia, the circuit has two long straights and the extra boost of about 80bhp KERS can deliver is ideal for overtaking. Team principal Christian Horner, “We will run KERS in Malaysia. It was a very marginal decision not to run it [in Australia]. In Malaysia there is a long run to the first turn and we are keen to get it on the car there.”
Sebastian Vettel is fan of the Malaysian circuit. Circuit-wise you’ve got everything in there: Turn 14 requires you to brake the car while you’re still turning into the corner, which makes it quite challenging,” the 2010 champion said. But he also knows the conditions are always difficult, “It’s hot and rains everyday, but the question is when and how much? It will be a tricky one.”
Mark Webber was considerably slower than Vettel in Australia, nevertheless he is now confident he will be faster after the team investigated his car. “After a disappointing race in Melbourne we’ve made some changes to the set-up of the car at this race. I wasn’t unhappy with the balance at Albert Park, but the lap times weren’t there and the tyre degradation was too high. If the new set-up has the expected results, I can race well at Sepang,” the Australian said.
If the new set-up has the expected results, I can race well at Sepang
Webber is convinced rain will also play a role, “I expect to use Pirelli’s wet tyres at some stage over the weekend. But it never drizzles in this part of the world, it pours, and you risk flooding and all sorts. The rain doesn't make it much cooler in the cockpit either. It’s sure to be an eventful weekend!”
Ferrari left Australia with a red face after Red Bull had dominated the race, the two scarlet red Ferraris simply failed to impress. They had no explanation for their lack of pace, and the prancing horse went back to Maranello to do some extra homework. Technical director Pat Fry, “We have spent a lot of time analyzing all the data acquired in Melbourne and one clear fact is that our race pace there was definitely better than the one we had in qualifying.” According to Fry the tyres were the main culprit, it was very difficult to get them on the right operating temperature. Ferrari will now carry out a test program in Sepang to help them to get up to speed.
Alonso initially said he was not worried about the performance of his Ferrari 150° Italia, but had to admit the season opener in Australia wasn’t a dream start for Ferrari. “I think we understand that we need to work, that we need to improve the car, but I think we need to wait also to see the next two or three races to see how it goes and to confirm what we saw in Melbourne is the real picture. We will see: we studied the real pace of our car, we still believe that we can be much more competitive than Melbourne with the actual car and we will try to do a better weekend here,” he said this week.
McLaren had feared they would be off the pace as well, but after quick thinking and a new aerodynamic package Hamilton crossed the finish line in second place, and if Button hadn’t cut a corner he could also have finished on the podium. But team principal Martin Whitmarsh very well knows his team has to keep up with Red Bull. “As with every season, we’re pushing hard to bring developments to the car for every race. We don’t think Melbourne showed us the best of our competitors’ pace, so that only makes us more motivated to bring as much performance to the table as possible,” the Briton said. And what about McLaren’s chances in Malaysia? “The reality is that there was a gap to pole position, and we finished second and not first. Our target is to close that gap and get Lewis and Jenson into a position where they can win.”
Whatever the weather throws at us this year, I think we can have another strong weekend
Jenson Button about the difficult conditions in Sepang, “Until you’ve been to Malaysia, you really can’t appreciate what an oven it is -- it’s the toughest race of the year physically, and a place where good base fitness carried over from the winter will stand you in good stead for the race.” And continued, “I won here in 2009 in some of the worst conditions I’ve ever experienced in a racing car -- it was like driving through a river at some spots. Whatever the weather throws at us this year, I think we can have another strong weekend.”
Lewis Hamilton is also positive ahead of the race, ”I’m really looking forward to using KERS and the DRS too -- the rapid change of direction you experience when the car is really in the groove is phenomenal around here, and I think both systems will make the cars look sensational, especially in qualifying. And the 2008 champion added, “After the pace we showed in Melbourne, I think we can have another good race in Malaysia.”
The Drag Reduction System (DRS)
The DRS system, or moveable rear wing, should work a lot better at Sepang, as the circuit has two long straights. The FIA reported today DRS will be activated on the start-finish straight only. The detection zone will be 200 meters before the final turn which leads to the start-finish straight. If a driver is less than one second behind another driver in the detection zone, the wing will be activated in the activation zone, which starts right after the last corner and runs the entire length of the start-finish straight, which is a little over one kilometer long.
Webber remains skeptic about the effect of the wing in Malaysia, “There are also some long straights and heavy braking areas so overtaking will be possible, particularly with the new DRS wing.” And he added, “If it doesn't work here I don't know where it will work. You have a slow corner to open the lap, a slow corner at the braking point, and Heathrow airport in between as well in terms of options, so it should work.”
Massa thinks the wing will help him to overtake, but he is not a real fan of DRS. “You have to get the right balance between helping the chances of overtaking and having almost too much passing,” the Brazilian said. “At Sepang the two straights follow one another, so if you are quicker than the car ahead you might not even try and pass on the first straight, preferring to get well prepared and as close as possible, before then having a simple overtaking move on the second straight,” he explained.
Williams technical director Adam Parr believes DRS will perform better in Malaysia. “Sepang is dominated by two high-speed corner combinations as well a number of slow-speed corners,” Michael said. "There are three long straights at Sepang so set-up is geared towards those high speed sections as efficiency is well rewarded. We expect the moveable rear wing to have a greater influence on overtaking here, even more than it did in Australia.”
Grand Prix Malaysia, Sepang International Circuit
|Sepang International Circuit||Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia|
|Circuit length||5.543 km|
|Circuit altitude||31 meters|
|Longest straight||950 meters|
|Total number of race laps||56|
|Total race distance||310.408km|
|Top speed||300 km/h|
|Average speed||205 km/h|
|Gear changes||60 per lap|
|Tyre compounds||Hard [Prime - Silver] / Soft [Option - Red]|
|Lap record||J.P. Montoya - McLaren - 1:34.223 (2004)|
|Speed limits in the pit lane||60 km/h during practice sessions and 100 km/h during qualifying and race|
|FIA Stewards||Emanuele Pirro (I), Gary Connelly (AUS) and Vincenzo Spano (VEN)|
Sepang three-day weather forecast
|Day||Forecast||Min Temperature||Max Temperature|
|Friday||Cloudy, heavy rain showers, humid and hot||25C||31C|
|Saturday||Cloudy, thunder and heavy rain, hot and humid||25C||30C|
|Sunday||Cloudy, thunder and heavy rain, hot and humid||24C||29C|
The race is one of the hottest and most humid of all venues on this year’s calendar, and the new Pirelli tyres will undergo their first real test under very harsh conditions. Teams will again have two extra sets of slicks available for the first two free practice sessions on Friday. The extra sets are officially to test new rubber compounds, but in reality it looks like the FIA and Pirelli realize teams will not have enough fresh sets of tyres left for qualifying and the race -- due to the severe degradation -- without these two extra sets.
The track is very demanding on the tyres, the surface is very abrasive, there are heavy braking areas and last but not least, the high-speed corners will be a challenge for the tyres as well. Pirelli has allocated the Hard (Prime) and soft (Option) rubber compounds, and Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motortsport director expects three or four pit stops this weekend.
“We said all along that we would be seeing two to three pit stops in Australia, but in Malaysia I think that figure is likely to increase to three to four,” Hembery predicts. “They say that it’s never a question of if it rains at Sepang but when, so the performance of our wet tyres could be crucial this weekend and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing them out on track.” Hembery said.
New chance for Mercedes GP
Mercedes had a disastrous weekend in Australia, after a problematic qualifying session on Saturday Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher landed a seventh and 11th grid position, not the result they had hoped for. The race became a disaster, as a result of two separate incidents both drivers had to retire, Schumacher after 19 laps, and Rosberg after 22 laps.
Despite the problems, Schumacher remains optimistic. “There is absolutely no doubt we want to do better than in the opening race, which was a disappointment for all of us. We clearly see that as a challenge and it is much too early to write us off. Everybody in the team remains positive and is in a fighting mood. So I expect a better weekend for us to come; a weekend we can build on.”
Team principal Ross Brawn admitted he was disappointed after the race in Melbourne, “We suffered a number of problems which resulted in a far from optimum car for qualifying and the race, and then were unlucky to suffer a disappointing double retirement.” Mercedes vice-president of Motorsport Norbert Haug indicated the team has worked hard since they left Australia. “Since the first race in Australia, we have worked hard in Brackley and Brixworth to analyse the reasons behind, and to solve, the reliability and performance problems which hampered our first race weekend of the season. Our target is to be in better shape in Malaysia,” the German said.
Toro Rosso drivers at war?
This time not a war between Hamilton and Button, or Vettel and Webber, but between the two Toro Rosso drivers who again were involved in incidents with other drivers in Melbourne. Lotus Renault driver Nick Heidfeld was hit by one of the Toro Rosso drivers, Buemi initially pointed the finger at Alguersuari, but Alguersuari now blames Buemi for the incident. The animosity is not new, both drivers have crashed into each other several times last year, and it seems the war is now on. “It wasn’t me,” said Alguersuari, “I did hit Schumacher and I'm sorry for that, but I’m not responsible for the incident with Heidfeld. I was a bit behind and saw exactly what happened: Seb [Buemi] was in corner ten fighting with the Renault and he hit him at corner 11.”
I’m not responsible for the incident with Heidfeld
The 22-year old Buemi was apparently angry after Alguersuari hit him at the start if the race, and he was even less happy when his team mate accused him of hitting Heidfeld. “We spoke after his foul in Melbourne,” Buemi said, “We both had a different opinion. I hope he does the right thing now and respects me, I don't want to say any more about it.” This ‘blame game’ both drivers play is also the result of the possibility Australian Daniel Ricciardo could replace either of the two drivers, when they fail to deliver some good results this season.
The weather can make the difference
Whether it will rain in Sepang depends on the weather gods, but at some point this weekend the rain will come down, making the already tricky conditions even more trickier. When it rains during qualifying drivers will have to qualify on full wet or intermediate tyres, and they have not been tested in real race circumstances. Sometimes the rain subsides as quickly as it has appeared and the track conditions will then once again change.
In the past McLaren and Ferrari have made major mistakes during qualifying in rainy conditions, thinking the rain would stop while it in fact worsened, and thus were not able to put a good time on the clocks and stranded with a red face in Q1, also destroying their chances for the race.
The race itself can become a lottery if it rains, there is not much known about the durability of the Pirelli wet weather tyres. Over the years the rain has provided plenty of action for the spectators. The conditions in Malaysia can be extreme, and the high humidity and high temperatures don’t really make it any easier. For teams and drivers it will be a process of trial and error to find the right tyre compound for a wet or semi-wet track, for Pirelli it will be the ultimate test.
In 2009 the race was red flagged due to the heavy rain, in 2010 Vettel and Webber finished in first and second position, while McLaren and Ferrari had to start the race from the back of the grid, after they had been caught out by the rain during qualifying. Anything can happen in Malaysia, the one who can adapt to the circumstances the most quickly has a good chance to finish on the podium, while the smaller and slower teams could benefit from rainy conditions as down force is less important.
Both Ferrari and McLaren have vowed to catch up with the fast Red Bull team, but in its turn Red Bull will also have improved their car, the RB7 will now also be equipped with KERS. And Mercedes will get their chance to prove what progress they have made after both drivers were eliminated from the race in Australia. A good pit stop strategy is of the utmost importance, the weather gods will do the rest: the heat is on in Sepang!”