Cameron Curwood, F1 correspondent
McLaren-Mercedes driver Jenson Button enters the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix as the man to beat after dominating the opening round of the FIA Formula One new season, the Australian Grand Prix. Button had a strong 2011 Malaysian race too, moving from fourth on the grid to finish only three seconds behind pole-sitter and race-winner Sebastian Vettel. Button also won the 2009 race. He, however, is not resting on these accomplishments.
"Of course we're not relaxing," said Button. "Both Red Bull drivers were very quick in the race (in Australia), and I think we can expect further strong challenges (in Malaysia) from Mercedes and Lotus."
Button's teammate Lewis Hamilton is determined and motivated that it will be the other McLaren finishing first.
"I've not won at Sepang before, but I've had some good races here - and I'd like to put the record straight with a victory this weekend," said Hamilton. "I think we go into the weekend feeling pretty optimistic because Sepang is quite a high-speed circuit and our car has usually gone well in the high-speed stuff during winter testing.”
... we learned a huge amount, so that was great.
Mercedes, however, are entering the race under a bit of a cloud. Red Bull and Lotus threatened to protest the results in Australia last weekend due to Mercedes' new 'F-duct'-like solution, which Mercedes call the 'W-duct'.
Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher said, "There is no doubt that we have an innovation that gives us some performance but I don't think that it is a huge performance and that we only live from this. We'll find out. I can't really quantify this. I think some get a little bit too excited about this compared to reality but that's the usual story."
Schumacher's gearbox broke in Melbourne, and last year at Sepang he could only muster a ninth place finish for Mercedes.
Red Bull agrees that they will be right there at the top in Malaysia, and like Button, they also believe that Lotus and Mercedes will also be strong.
"It's confirmation that a lot of our hard work over the winter has been extremely beneficial," said Red Bull driver Mark Webber, who finished fourth at his home race in Australia. "That was particularly apparent on Sunday afternoon. We were strong in the race, a lot stronger than we were on Saturday afternoon in qualifying. And that's where the points are handed out. Obviously we were beaten by McLaren but in general there was some positives in that and some sections of the race where the car was extremely strong, and we learned a huge amount, so that was great."
Vettel commented, "McLaren has done a very good step. They have a very competitive car, and from what we know they are quick everywhere. It's not as if they have a weakness. They will be the ones to beat and we will try our best but there are also others around. I think Mercedes left a very strong impression. It's a shame on Sunday their pace was literally falling apart but they can be very quick here. Lotus can again be a surprise too."
The best that Lotus could do in Australia was seventh by Kimi Raikkonen, while teammate Romain Grosjean was out on lap 1 due to a collision. Neither drive competed in Malaysia last year.
"We'll be trying to improve our performance in Malaysia for sure," said Raikkonen. "We don't know how the car will behave there but it's been good everywhere so far so hopefully it'll be the same there. It'll be hot and humid which is a challenge but we have a good car. As long as qualifying goes well we could be fighting for podiums. We'll have to wait and see."
Grosjean’s last race at the circuit was four years ago and he said, "Sepang is probably my favourite track. I raced there in 2008 as part of the GP2 Asia Series and I really loved the circuit. It's nice and wide, with fast flowing corners and a lot of undulation which makes it great fun to drive. The last corner is a tricky one, but I enjoy everything about racing here. Well, maybe not the heat and humidity, but at the end of the day it makes it just another challenge for the drivers! I'm really looking forward to it. I believe we can achieve some positive results this season, hopefully starting in Malaysia."
Ferrari arrived in Malaysia with a fifth place finish from Fernando Alonso at Australia, and Felipe Massa being dogged by rumours of his replacement after retiring due to a collision, and a sixteenth placed qualifying position.
"We need to turn the page after Australia and start again from zero and that is what we are planning for this race which I hope will get off to a good start," said Massa. "This is not the first time that I have had a difficult race, there have been many. But one always has to look to the next one and this weekend will be only the second of the championship, so there is still time." = Alonso also remained positive. "I'm calm", he said. "Obviously, knowing we need to work, we need to catch up to the guys in front. We are not in the situation we wanted to start the 2012 championship but after 11 years in Formula One I think you understand how long the championship is, what you need when you have the best and what you need when you don't have the best car."
McLaren, then, look like the favourites, with Button's recent performances perhaps giving him the edge on Hamilton. On top of that, the weather forecast is for rain on Saturday and Sunday. The last wet Malaysian race was in 2009, and that was won by the current championship leader, Button.