Can the blue team stand their ground at Sepang?
Renault are the clear favourite as the FIA Formula One World Championship moves to its second round in Malaysia this weekend, but other contenders are determined to wipe out their bad memories from Australia a fortnight ago and to pose a more serious threat.
World Championship leader Giancarlo Fisichella believes that he can increase his advantage in the points table, while team mate Fernando Alonso is determined to increase his challenge. Arguably, the Italian had the better fortune with weather conditions in qualifying in Melbourne, and exploited that to the full to win as he pleased there. Both expect things to be tougher in Malaysia.
The team are very optimistic, and I think we will expect to fight at the front again, says Fisichella. But if bad weather does not play a part, I am sure the race will be a lot closer than in Australia.
At the moment, nobody knows how the tyre performance will unfold in temperatures like we have in Sepang, and it will be interesting to find out. All we know is that Michelin have done a great job this winter and in the first race.
Who will provide Renaults strongest opposition? In the end in Australia it was Ferrari, with Rubens Barrichello finishing a threatening second in the updated F2004. And the world champions can be relied upon to stage another strong performance in Sepang, the age of their car notwithstanding. They may even find themselves with an advantage courtesy of their Bridgestone tyres.
But there is also a strong feeling that the weather in qualifying stymied McLaren in Melbourne, preventing them from showing their true hand. CEO Martin Whitmarsh says: We need to improve on our performance and we are looking to have a positive, solid race where we can hopefully reflect the pace we believe there is in MP4-20. I think everyone has had a lot to say about the new regulations, there were fairly extraordinary circumstances in Australia and I think we need to run a couple more races to get a full understanding of how they will operate.
All of the top teams have been testing in Jerez in the intervening week, using their test drivers. Ricardo Zonta set the fastest lap for Toyota in 1m 15.708s, followed by McLarens Alexander Wurz, Renaults Franck Montagny, Ralf Schumacher in the Toyota, Ferraris Luca Badoer and Antonio Pizzonia for Williams.
Toyota are feeling confident after Jarno Trullis performance in Melbourne, as he started from the front row of the grid and chased Fisichella until falling back after his first fuel stop with a blistered tyre. If that was the result of a rumoured problem with lack of rear-end grip, however, that could cause the team further trouble in Sepang. Williams have admitted to a similar problem, but are hoping that new aerodynamic parts will alleviate it this weekend.
BAR have also lacked grip in comparison to their chief rivals, but Jenson Button is hopeful of an improvement over their Australian performance thanks to further aero revisions on the 007. He and Takuma Sato will also have fresh engines after their ploy in stopping a lap early in Melbourne. Sauber, too, in their most important race of the season and on the 10th anniversary of their relationship with sponsors Petronas, are pinning hopes on a revised aerodynamic package on the C24.
Red Bull, meanwhile, are hoping to carry on where David Coulthard left off with his fourth place in Australia, and Jordan and Minardi (who will run to 2005 specification from the outset this time) will continue up their learning curves with their rookie drivers.
Undoubtedly this will be a much tougher race than Australia, with higher track temperatures placing a greater premium on tyre performance and engine reliability than Albert Park. We are thus likely to see greater performance gaps between the cars, and less of a follow-my-leader show as overtaking opportunities are better.
Sepang combines corners such as Turns 5 and 6 which are very quick and demand high-speed directional changes, with low-speed hairpins which put excellent mechanical traction at a premium. Since these hairpins also require heavy braking, stability and balance are paramount.
Teams will continue to seek medium to high levels of downforce but this is tricky here as what works for qualifying is less suitable to race conditions, so there is a compromise to be engineered on Saturday. Cooling is also crucial because of the extreme ambient and track temperatures and the high humidity, especially with the two races per engine rule.
Tyre performance will be the most critical aspect, however, and few of the teams really know what to expect because so little winter testing was conducted in high track temperatures. The heat problem, allied to the relatively greater abrasion of the track in comparison to Albert Park, will increase tyre wear, as will the need for lateral braking on two of the corners. Thus set-up work will seek to minimise this, as well as focusing on balance and stability.
Australia notwithstanding, the Malaysian Grand Prix will almost amount to another fresh start to the 2005 Formula One season, but the one thing we can predict with certainty is that we will have a clearer indication on Sunday evening of the true pecking order so far.