If they do, it looks like being a very one-sided season.
Red Bull’s advantage
Drivers spend around one-third of a lap of Sepang not on full-throttle. That means braking and cornering: areas where the RB7’s prodigious downforce pays enormous dividends.
The RB7 can attain higher cornering speeds and carry them onto Sepang’s long straights. But then the extra downforce starts to work against the Red Bulls in the form of increased drag. That left the RB7s only ninth-quickest of 12 cars through the speed trap in Melbourne during qualifying.
Their lack of straight-line speed was not too great a problem a circuit where the longest straight is 843 metres. But Sepang has two straights longer than that, the largest of which is just over a kilometre in length.
Red Bull could find themselves obliged to back off their wing angles to avoid being out-gunned on the straights. But their Kinetic Energy Recovery System may also come into play.
They had to switch KERS off at Melbourne because they couldn’t guarantee its reliability. Getting it up and running in the heat and humidity of Malaysia will be a significant challenge, and one to keep an eye on during Friday practice.
But at this stage we can’t rule out the possibility that it’s all an elaborate ruse and Red Bull aren’t planning to use KERS at all. The conventional wisdom is they would be too vulnerable at the starts if they did that – but it didn’t cause them a significant problem in Melbourne.
Who can catch Red Bull?
Melbourne’s quirky circuit offered a vague glimpse of the balance of power between the teams. Sepang will offer more concrete answers.
Among the questions being asked are whether Mark Webber can access the same level of performance with the RB7 that his team mate is. He was slower in qualifying and needed an extra pit stop during the race – the worst of both worlds.
McLaren and Renault are wary of the threat from Ferrari and Mercedes, who failed to replicate their pre-season testing form in Melbourne.
Another team that conspicuously under-performed in Malaysia was Williams – although the FW33 showed some potential in the hands of Rubens Barrichello.
Sauber had the car that was kindest to its tyres in Melbourne – Sergio Perez was the only driver who made it through the race with just one change of tyres. They were also quickest through the speed traps in qualifying.
But will the C30 perform as well once the team have tweaked its rear wing to ensure it no longer falls foul of the scrutineers?
Getting on the grid
But the cars did not appear to have a working Drag Reduction System in Australia. If they can get a working one on the car in Sepang, along with other missing parts of their 2011 kit including the front wing, that could be enough to bridge the gap.
Virgin only narrowly got both cars into the race at Melbourne. It means these two teams are vulnerable to the whims of the front runners: if Red Bull choose to do a run on soft tyres in Q1 they could potentially wipe four cars out of the race at a stroke.
Tyres and temperatures
The teams will use the same tyre compounds as in Melbourne: hard (with silver lettering) and soft (yellow). Pirelli predict that in a dry race we could see up to four pit stops per car – that’s one every 11 laps.
Pirelli must expect much more rapid tyre degradation in the heat of Sepang compared to cool Melbourne if they expect teams to give away a minute and a half coming into and out of the pits for fresh rubber on race day.
How the tyres perform will influence many of this weekend’s storylines: from whether Red Bull are still almost a second ahead to whether HRT can qualify.
Last of all is the ever-present variable of the unpredictable Malaysian weather. Last year it made fools of Ferrari and McLaren, who hung around in the pits during qualifying, missed the best of the track conditions and ended up at the back of the grid.
The Pirelli wet weather tyres have had little use in testing but drivers reported high wear when they were used. That could prove a difficult combination given the mixture of high temperatures and sudden, intense rainfall that characterises the local weather.
Your view on the Malaysian Grand Prix
Will Red Bull still be far ahead in Malaysia – and will they use KERS?
Will we see a full field of 24 cars on the grid? And can Ferrari and Mercedes bounce back from their disappointing start to the season?
Have your say in the comments.
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