Malaysia Preview - the battle heats up at Sepang 01 Apr 2010
This weekends Malaysian Grand Prix could be the most wide open of the three races held thus far this season, following the respective performances in Melbourne.
On a fast and flowing track Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes were all a lot closer to Red Bull on qualifying and race pace, and McLaren go to Sepang with their tails up after Jenson Buttons excellent victory in Albert Park.
It was a tremendous achievement to score our first win of the season in Melbourne last week, and its given every single member of the team even greater enthusiasm for this weekend, reigning champion Button says. Even so, I think we travel to Sepang mindful that the characteristics of the circuit probably wont suit our car as well as it will suit some of the others - but Im confident that, once again, well be fighting at or near the front.
Were only two races in, but I think the development race will already be starting to have an influence on performance. Its the rate of improvement that will most influence the battle at the front. And Im confident we can deliver in this area: it was something I watched the team doing throughout 2009, and it was one of the key reasons for deciding to hold talks with the team. Im convinced we have the firepower to develop faster than our key rivals.
Team mate Lewis Hamilton, who was very unhappy with the teams strategy in bringing him in for a second tyre stop last weekend when most of his rivals stayed out, says he understands it better now, but you can be sure that the 2008 champion will be giving it all hes got to even up the victory score.
Sepang has some of the best high-speed corners on the entire calendar, he says. And, this year, I think weve got a car that will be far better suited to the circuit than we did last year, so Im heading to Malaysia optimistic of a good result. Its a fast circuit that requires a well-balanced car with a good level of downforce.
In some ways, its quite similar to Barcelona, where we tested well before the start of the season, so Im optimistic that well be competitive this weekend. However, I still think it might be difficult to make up the difference thats needed in qualifying. Hopefully, thats something that well be able to solve as soon as possible.
Ferrari lacked straight-line speed in Australia, which could work against them here, but the F10 otherwise seems to be the most consistent challenger to the Red Bull in qualifying trim and Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa both say they expect to be competitive this weekend.
So, of course, do Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Brembo issued a statement earlier this week confirming that Vettels retirement in Australia was not a brake failure, and sources within the team say it was centred round a wheel fixing problem. The team also said this week that they will welcome a ruling from the FIA on ride height adjustment systems, such as the one that is believed to give them an advantage in qualifying and late stages of races, and that they are determined to put the disappointments of the first two races behind them and go all-out for victory.
Renault also go to Malaysia in aggressive frame of mind after Robert Kubicas fighting second place in Australia. It was not a surprise, team principal Eric Boullier says. We know our car has the pace to be at least just behind the big top four, so obviously any mess up front we can take the opportunity to score points. Obviously I am very, very happy with the team at Enstone and Viry-Chatillon because they did an awesome job during the winter, and it is good to have some points and podiums. The target is done, but it helps morale to be even better.
Boullier also says that Renault will now be more aggressive on their race strategy. Obviously we knew already that our car has good race pace, and is a consistent one, but it was a question mark about tyre degradation. Now we know so we can push on with a little bit more.
Down at Mercedes, Michael Schumacher refuses to be disappointed after finishing only 10th in Melbourne. "I have taken a lot of positives from the race weekend there, the multiple champion says. Whilst that might not be evident at first sight, when you look into the weekend more deeply, we did make some real improvements and have good reasons to be satisfied, just not from the actual result obviously.
Analysing qualifying, both Nico (Rosberg) and I could have been two or three places higher and with hindsight, my set-up was too conservative and too much focused on the race. Those better positions would have enabled us to fight closer to the front on Sunday. All of this means that we are not too far away and I am quite confident that there will be more to come.
Going to Malaysia this weekend, we know that we have clearly improved our pace since Bahrain which is a good feeling. It was a lot of fun fighting it out on the track in Melbourne, even if it was just for one point, and I will enjoy fighting again in Sepang."
Force India and Williams aim to keep scoring points, while this weekend will be very important for Malaysian-backed Lotus, which has so far proved to be the quickest and most reliable of the new teams. On their home ground they are very keen to show strongly, but Virgin believe they are making progress and HRT expect to go a lot faster the more track time they get under their wheels.
On the tyre front, Bridgestone will bring their hard and soft compounds to a track that is very heavy on tyres with two long straights that end in tight, slow-speed hairpin corners which require heavy braking. The wide variety of corners means that tyres and drivers are kept under heavy loads over the course of a lap, in humidity and high temperatures more akin to a sauna.