From the rain of Albert Park to the heat of Sepang; will the Malaysian Grand Prix spring any surprises or will the status quo be restored? The main question marks seem to hang over how the tyres will cope with the heat over the distances they now...
From the rain of Albert Park to the heat of Sepang; will the Malaysian Grand Prix spring any surprises or will the status quo be restored? The main question marks seem to hang over how the tyres will cope with the heat over the distances they now have to run, and likewise the two-race engine. Fitness is a priority for drivers these days and Sepang is a test of physical condition as well as mechanical.
Sepang has been on the F1 calendar for seven years now and is a fairly challenging circuit. "The track characteristic is a good mix of slow-speed corners where traction is crucial, and high-speed sweeps that require high stability," explained Sauber technical director Willy Rampf. "So the challenge for the engineers is to find the right compromise."
Tyre degradation is something to take into consideration with the high temperatures and smooth track surface. Previously a soft tyre would have been the choice but with the new rules, a harder compound will be used.
"Keeping rear tyres cool will be critical this weekend," said Toyota technical director Mike Gascoyne. "That has always been a significant factor at Sepang, given the high track temperatures, but it will be particularly vital now that we have to make one set of tyres last a full race distance."
Giancarlo Fisichella, who took the season-opener victory for Renault, is expecting rivals to fight back at Sepang. "We know the weather made the circumstances strange in Melbourne, so we expect other teams like Ferrari and McLaren to be much stronger in Malaysia," he commented. "But we have a good package, so let's see what happens."
Rubens Barrichello gave Ferrari a solid start with second in Melbourne but not having Michael Schumacher finish the race was a surprise. Naturally the reigning champing is aiming to make amends in Sepang. "For sure, zero points in the season's first race is not what I expected," Schumacher conceded.
"From what we saw in Australia, the F2004 M was still competitive, much more than thought possible. I think that we can expect a positive result in Sepang. Rubens proved that it is possible to finish highly even after a so-so qualifying session. I have faith because we were very consistent in the Grand Prix."
Red Bull impressed in Australia. David Coulthard narrowly missed out on a podium in fourth and with Christian Klien finishing seventh it was the first time the team, since its inception as Jaguar, got both cars home in the points. However, Coulthard is cautious about predicting how the team will fare in Malaysia.
"They say you're only as good as your last race, so although the Melbourne result was a great morale booster, we now have to start all over again in a race that will be a much tougher proposition," he said. "I've finished second and third at Sepang in the past. That will be hard to match, but I will be trying my best to bring home some more points."
Mark Webber salvaged four points for Williams in Melbourne but thinks Sepang will show a clearer picture of the competition. "I think we'll get a true reflection of people's pace at Sepang because the results from qualifying one in Melbourne were affected by heavy rain," he remarked. "If we get a consistent weekend in Malaysia, we will get an idea of where everyone stands."
Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen scored a double points finish for McLaren in Australia but sixth and eighth didn't reflect the potential of the car, according to CEO Martin Whitmarsh. "We need to improve on our performance and are looking to have a positive, solid race (at Sepang) where we can hopefully reflect the pace we believe there is in MP4-20," he commented.
Jarno Trulli's ninth place finish for Toyota in Melbourne was disappointing after his good qualifying result, as was Jacques Villeneuve's 13th place for Sauber. Neither of their teammates made a big impression on the race, Ralf Schumacher finishing 12th and Felipe Massa 10th -- although to be fair, Massa did start from the back.
Villeneuve is expecting another tough weekend: "This is the first hot race of the year and all of the winter testing is usually done in relatively low temperatures, so it's quite a shock to the body. It is also hard on the car, and cooling the engine and brakes is even more critical. Sepang is always a difficult race."
As both of BAR's cars were outside the points near the end of the race in Melbourne, the team opted to retire them to the pits in order to be able to use a fresh engine this weekend. It's a loophole in the rules that has been frowned upon by others and steps have been taken so it can't be exploited again.
The FIA has clarified the situation and said a distinction will made between failing to finish and choosing not to finish. From now on, if there is no obvious reason, teams will have to give the stewards an acceptable explanation of why a driver failed to finish the race. It remains to be seen if BAR will face a penalty this weekend if it uses new engines.
Jordan's aim at Melbourne was to get both cars to the finish and that was what they achieved. A similar result is probably the best Jordan can hope for at Sepang and Minardi will no doubt be looking for the same. Christijan Albers' retired in Melbourne but Patrick Friesacher was the last man to cross the line in 17th.
The general consensus of opinion is that Malaysia will provide a better idea of where the teams stand in relation to each other. This may well be so, but Sepang can be prone to abrupt thunderstorms and downpours and it's not unthinkable that the weather may interfere once again. But, all things being equal, we can at least hope for a good race.