Sebastian Vettel’s crushing display in the Australian Grand Prix raised the prospect of a season dominated by Red Bull.
But after a close qualifying session between them and McLaren we may look forward to a similarly exciting race.
The run to the first corner at Sepang is 460m – over twice as far as it was at Melbourne. This makes getting a good start and deploying KERS all the more important.
Unusually, in the last two years the driver leading at the end of lap one in Sepang hadn’t started on the front row.
Last year Vettel got a clean getaway from third and pinched the lead from his pole-sitting team mate at the first corner. No doubt Mark Webber would like to return the favour this year as they start in the reverse of the 2010 positions.
Christian Horner said Red Bull are using KERS on their cars this weekend, unlike in Melbourne. Sure enough, their straight-line speeds in qualifying were higher – in fact both Vettel and Webber were quicker than Hamilton at the speed trap. That removes a potential vulnerability from the RB7s at the start.
But this is the first time Red Bull have run KERS in a race. Reliability has been a problem for most teams using KERS at one stage or another.
Although KERS failures tend not to cause outright retirement, it is obviously a disadvantage if the system packs in and leaves the driver lugging around a battery and motor for no benefit.
There’s more to getting a good start than just KERS – witness Lewis Hamilton’s poor getaway in Melbourne. The decision to change which side of the grid pole position is on could also play a role here.
Unlike in previous years Vettel’s pole position slot is on the right-hand side. The left-hand side is further off-line and will potentially have more rubber debris on it.
Some oil was dropped in a support race near where the Hamilton will start from, but the Malaysian marshals have been busy cleaning it up.
Sepang’s wide corners and long straight invite first-lap lunges for position, so expect to see some big moves at the start.
Pirelli have said they expect drivers to need three pit stops at Sepang and that has been supported by what we’ve seen in practice so far.
None of the drivers in the top ten chose to qualify on the hard tyre, meaning they’ll all start on softs (assuming it’s a dry race). As ever, keep your eyes peeled when the formation lap begins to see which drivers starting 11th and lower have opted for hard tyres.
This was the strategy Sergio Perez found so effective in Melbourne. However it’s doubtful anyone will be able to emulate his feat of doing the whole race on just one stop.
Making one fewer pit stop will save a driver 22 seconds. Drivers making three stops will make their first visits to the pits after about ten laps – anyone who can eke their tyres out half-a-dozen laps or so longer should be able to do two.
In Melbourne we saw some teams and drivers had to make more stops than others – both Ferraris and Mark Webber stopped three times while many of their rivals did just two. Sepang could give us more of an insight into which cars and drivers manage their tyres best.
Red Bull in particular were paying attention to their rear tyre wear during practice – something which will not have been improved by the addition of KERS.
Before the race weekend started Sunday looked like the best prospect for some rain and that is still the case. Different forecasts are predicting 60% or greater chance of rain.
The performance of Pirelli’s wet and intermediate tyres is a significant unknown. Given the high temperatures which persist at the circuit even during rainfall, wet running here would be a major test of their durability.
The prospect of a wet race inevitably brings with it claims that this team or that driver have opted for a ‘wet set-up’. Until the race is done and dusted it’s hard to say, but don’t bank on any teams making concessions that would significantly affect their dry-weather performance unless they were certain rain was going to come.
Interestingly, Charlie Whiting declared yesterday that drivers may not use the DRS “if the car is fitted with intermediate or wet-weather tyres”.
This could be significant in a scenario where the field is in transition between dry and wet-weather tyres, as those on slicks would be able to use their DRS but those on wet or intermediates wouldn’t.
Of course, the usual restrictions on using DRS in the race would still apply. Drivers can activate their rear wing once they come out of the final corner, providing they were within one second of another car on the approach to it.
As the start/finish straight is over one kilometre long, the DRS effect should be more powerful here than it was in Melbourne. So even if the race stays dry, we may well see more jockeying for position than usual.
Keep an eye on the Mercedes and Force India drivers who had the highest top speeds and have got places to make up at the start. Particularly Michael Schumacher, who was hindered by a DRS problem in qualifying.
Over to you
How do you expect the Malaysian Grand Prix to unfold?
Will McLaren – or anyone else – be able to keep up with Red Bull? And who will fare best if it rains?
Have your say in the comments.
2011 Malaysian Grand Prix
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