Malaysia preview - who can take the fight to Red Bull? 07 Apr 2011
Apart from the fact that Red Bull will be the team to beat, the second round of the 2011 FIA Formula One World Championship poses as many questions as did the first, two weeks ago in Melbourne.
Will Red Bull get their KERS system working, and how much more advantage will that confer? Will McLaren be able to close the gap on a circuit whose two long straights might penalise the draggier Red Bull RB7? Will Ferrari and Mercedes get closer to the pace than they did during disappointing outings in Australia?
And what of Renault, who showed great race pace Down Under; Williams, who had such a terrible weekend there; Sauber whose seventh and eighth places were so cruelly taken away because of a small but crucial technological infringement; Lotus and Virgin who both underperformed against their own expectations; or HRT who failed to qualify?
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said earlier this week that he expects Mark Webber will be up there again with championship-leading team mate Sebastian Vettel, and that certain set-up parameters on the Australians car may have accounted for his disappointing form at home. "We found a few things on Mark's car, set-up-wise, that certainly wouldn't have helped him, and all those elements have been changed for Malaysia, where we'd expect the two of them to be much closer together. But there was no single issue that we could pinpoint. I think there are elements that weren't right and the difference that we've seen between the drivers during the course of the weekend was bigger than it's ever been and not right, so I'm sure they would've contributed."
While Vettel is understandably quietly confident, Lewis Hamilton believes that McLaren can maintain their position. "I think we can have another good race in Malaysia. Albert Park is a great track, but a circuit like Sepang is where the differences between the cars will start to become clearer.
"I'm really looking forward to using KERS and the DRS too - the rapid change of direction you experience when the car is really in the groove is phenomenal around here, and I think both systems will make the cars look sensational, especially in qualifying.
McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh believes, however, that Red Bull could be even stronger here. "We don't think Melbourne showed us the best of our competitors' pace, he says, so that only makes us more motivated to bring as much performance to the table as possible. On paper, it looks positive: we were pleased that our Melbourne upgrade worked as expected, and the car's performance around the high-speed elements of Albert Park suggests it will be able to cope around Sepang.
Fernando Alonso has been urging Ferrari to speed through new components, while Mercedes say they are feeling aggressive, despite their Melbourne performance. "We had a tough weekend in Australia but the team has worked hard and we are confident that the car will be running reliably in Malaysia," Nico Rosberg says.
Down the back, as the smallest teams regroup and hope for better fortune than they had in Melbourne, HRT are adamant that their 2011 front wing, which has passed its crash test, will enable them to make a major step forward and to challenge Lotus and Virgin.
Besides the effect of KERS on the long straights, the other technical question surrounds the effect of the DRS rear wing here. On Thursday the governing body confirmed it will only allow it to be activated on the shorter main straight, with the one-second detection zone starting 207m before the final turn, and the activation zone then beginning 5m after the turn.
Then there is the tyre situation. On the smooth surface of Melbournes Albert Park two pits stops were the ideal after scare stories that there could be as many as four per driver, while Saubers Mexican rookie star Sergio Perez did it on one stop, making a set of soft tyres last an amazing 35 laps.
Pirelli expects teams to choose between three and four stops this weekend, however, as their tyres degrade more dramatically in higher temperatures. The key will once again be maintaining flexibility and being willing to modify tactics.
Pirelli will again bring their hard and soft rubber, but will also give each driver two extra sets of a revised hard compound. "We never believe in standing still at Pirelli, motorsport manager Paul Hembery says, which is why the teams will have two extra sets of slick tyres available to them during Friday's free practice sessions for evaluation purposes."
The weather can be unpredictable in Sepang, however, and showers are expected on Thursday and Friday, with thunderstorms possible in the region on Saturday and Sunday.
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