As Formula One readies for the Malaysian Grand Prix, most teams are feeling the heat in more ways than one. Matching the superior performance shown by Ferrari in Australia is perhaps a more pressing matter than coping with Malaysia's high ...
As Formula One readies for the Malaysian Grand Prix, most teams are feeling the heat in more ways than one. Matching the superior performance shown by Ferrari in Australia is perhaps a more pressing matter than coping with Malaysia's high temperatures. The Scuderia's speed in Melbourne was dismaying for not only rivals but also the fans that were hoping for a competitive start to the season.
However, one race does not a championship make, as the general consensus of opinion reminds us. This is Ferrari's opinion as well, so let's not hastily predict another scarlet title triumph just yet. Ferrari should not be blamed for the shortcomings of other teams; it's up to rivals to match the Maranello squad, not for Ferrari to reduce its performance so they can catch up.
Ferrari's Bridgestone tyres were perfectly suited to Melbourne's cool conditions, while the Michelin runners struggled for grip. In Malaysia it could be a different story, as the French manufacturer's rubber generally comes into its own in the heat. This is presuming Malaysia will indeed provide high but dry temperatures rather than a tropical monsoon. Michelin might like the heat but Bridgestone has previously shown superiority when required to make use of flippers.
The modern, purpose-built circuit of Sepang became part of the F1 calendar on its completion in 1999. It's a technical track with straights that can reach speeds of over 300 kmph and 15 corners to negotiate. Set up is generally medium downforce for a compromise between drag and speed, while the track surface is more abrasive than Melbourne.
The weather can be changeable -- humidity is typical and the heat is tough on drivers and cars alike. Most race drivers started acclimatizing themselves for Sepang immediately after Melbourne, while team test drivers worked in Europe. A side effect of the humidity can be unexpected downpours so tyre choice can prove to be a major factor.
Last year's Sepang weekend produced a couple of firsts -- first pole position for Renault's young Spanish star Fernando Alonso and first win for McLaren's title-challenger Kimi Raikkonen. It was an all Renault front row in qualifying, with Jarno Trulli lining up alongside Alonso. But at the start of the race third placed Michael Schumacher hit Trulli at the first corner, causing the Italian to spin and the Ferrari to pit for a new nose cone.
Pit stops saw Alonso, Raikkonen and Rubens Barrichello all take turns in the lead but it was Raikkonen who triumphed, winning by half a minute from Barrichello. Alonso took his first podium in third after problems forced him to switch from automatic to manual gear changing.
Michael Schumacher is cautious about predicting a repeat performance of Melbourne in Sepang: "Malaysia is a sort of reference point for getting an early understanding of the stage of your development," he said. "Over the past few years we've had some difficulties, will see how it goes this time."
"In Formula 1 things can change very rapidly and we shouldn't forget that we have always done well in Australia. Malaysia, as well as being a very difficult race, is also unpredictable because of the climate. It isn't one of our favourite tracks."
Williams' Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya came home fourth and fifth in Australia, a result that was far from satisfactory for the team. "The season opener in Melbourne clearly demonstrated that there is still quite a lot of work ahead of us if we want to fight for the World Championship this year," said Ralf. "Even if we can't close the gap to Ferrari straight away, we must do better in Malaysia."
Williams technical director Patrick Head is expecting improvements for the second race. "I'd be very disappointed if we didn't do a lot better in Malaysia than we did in Australia from a competitive point of view," he admitted.
Alonso, who finished third to the two Ferraris in Melbourne, thinks Sepang is perhaps the most challenging track on the calendar. "Honestly, I think Sepang is perhaps the most difficult circuit of the year, and it is certainly one of the most technical that we go to," said the Spaniard. When I say technical, I mean that your car needs to be strong in every area: all the corners tend to be high-speed, so you need a perfect car balance and good aerodynamics."
Raikkonen did not see much action in Australia, engine failure bringing his race to an untimely end on only lap 11. Things are looking far from good for McLaren and the team is beset by rumours of a crisis and of principal Ron Dennis possibly heading for retirement. Whatever the concerns, it's far too early to write McLaren off.
David Coulthard took the team's single point in the first race. "The Australian Grand Prix was not an ideal start to the season for myself, Kimi and the West McLaren Mercedes team," said the Scot. "Everyone has been working hard on the test track and our facilities in Woking, Brixworth and Stuttgart and hopefully we will be able to improve in Sepang.
BAR had a fairly good weekend in Melbourne, Jenson Button and Takuma Sato qualifying creditably in third and seventh respectively. The race was not so great, sixth and ninth for the duo, but all in all a respectable start to the season. Button hopes for more of the same at Sepang, if not better.
"After the encouraging start we had in Melbourne last weekend, the Malaysian Grand Prix is looking good for us," said the Englishman. "It's great to be on the scoreboard already and we are going to Sepang with an even better package, so there is no reason to think we can't qualify and race well again."
Weather permitting, we should see a more balanced state of affairs in Malaysia -- or at least that's what most people are hoping for. Ferrari, obviously, wouldn't mind a repeat of Melbourne. The much-grumbled about qualifying format is set to stay for the moment because, as usual, team bosses can't agree upon a new system. Some things never change, but let's hope for a change for the better in competitiveness at Sepang.