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Malaysia preview - can Red Bull turn up the heat on McLaren? 22 Mar 2012

Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Saturday, 9 April 2011 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22 March 2012 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22 March 2012 Ferrari mark out their pit box.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22  March 2012 Track detail.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22  March 2012 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22 March 2012 Sam Bird (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 Third Driver and Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 on a scooter.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22 March 2012 Romain Grosjean (FRA) Lotus F1.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22 March 2012 Pastor Maldonado (VEN) Williams in the press conference.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22  March 2012 Scuderia Toro Rosso mechanic.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22 March 2012 Caterham F1 Team walk the track.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22  March 2012 Narain Karthikeyan (IND) HRT Formula One Team walks the track.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22  March 2012 Paddock.
Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sepang, Malaysia, Thursday, 22 March 2012

The tension is set to be ratcheted up another notch as the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship fight continues in Malaysia this weekend. Fresh from their dominant Melbourne victory, McLaren are determined to keep the lead and say they will be quicker still at Sepang. Even Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel admits they are currently superior.

"If you looked closely at ourselves in testing at Barcelona, we were pretty good in the high-speed corners," McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh said in Australia. "We looked like we were quickest in the high-speed corners and, if anything, Red Bull was beating us in low-speed traction areas.

"So to come to a circuit like this [Albert Park] and see we were reasonably strong in relation to them is good. I think the theory goes then that we should be strong when we get to the next track. Sepang is a high-speed track and, based on our performance, we should believe we are going to be quite quick there. We are looking forward to next weekend. I think we do fancy our chances there, but who knows. Let's see how we go."

"I think at the moment they have the upper hand," Vettel says of McLaren. "They showed it in Australia. But whether they still have it this week remains to be seen.

"Surely they look very strong. They had an excellent winter. Pre-season testing was very good for them and they seem to be in very good shape, whereas there are a lot of things we need to do to catch up. Hopefully we will be able to do that and beat them."

It goes without saying that Melbourne race winner Jenson Button and team mate Lewis Hamilton have come to Sepang full of enthusiasm.

Button says he feels, “Calm, refreshed and feeling extremely positive. After the race, people asked me if we’d expected to demonstrate the pace that we did in Australia, and I tell them that it was unexpected. Of course, we’d done our sums after winter testing, but you can never be certain whether another team is running with high fuel or hiding their true pace. So to come away from race one with such a positive result - pole, fastest lap and the victory - is a huge relief for the organisation.

“It’s also incredibly motivating: we know we have a great car but we’re not going to sit still with it. We have ambitious plans to develop it and I know that everybody back at Woking is working hard to bring new components to the track, and that all our mechanics and engineers are flat-out to ensure that we maximise the package that we have this weekend. I think everybody knows that we are a relentless organisation; we can develop a car as well - if not better than - any other team. The difference this year is that we’ve started with a winning package; the challenge will be to maintain that, and I know that’s something we’re all really looking forward to doing.

“I think we’ve got a car that really works well in the high-speed stuff - we saw that throughout winter testing. So I think the challenge this weekend will be to find the right balance - at this stage in the year, you’re still learning about the car and how to get the best from it. But I think the engineers understand how our car is strong - I know they’re really looking forward to extracting the maximum from it in Sepang this weekend.”

Hamilton, meanwhile, has been pondering the pace he lost relative to Button in the Australian race.

“It was difficult to understand exactly what happened,” he admits. “I was generally happy with the car all weekend, but just lacked a bit of pace compared to Jenson in the race. Afterwards, I sat down with my engineers and we went through all the data. There was a small issue with the clutch at the start: it wasn’t my fault, but we now understand and know how to improve in the future. My race pace was pretty much identical to Jenson’s, but he was able to switch the tyres on extremely well, which explains how he was able to pull a gap so quickly at the start and also after the restart.

“It’s encouraging and reassuring to understand the reasons for our race pace in Australia, and it puts me in a really positive frame of mind for Malaysia. Plus, it always helps to be back in the car only five days after the last Grand Prix - you move on so quickly.

“I think we go into the weekend feeling pretty optimistic because Sepang is quite a high-speed circuit and our car has usually gone well in the high-speed stuff during winter testing.

“Clearly, we’re very encouraged by our pace, both in qualifying and in the race, and I’d like to think we can continue that at Malaysia this weekend. I think both Mercedes AMG and Red Bull Racing have performance up their sleeves, and they’ll both be very fast in qualifying and the race. But it’s nice to be the hunted rather than the hunter, which has been the case in the past few seasons.”

As Ferrari are likely to struggle again following their problems in Australia, McLaren see Mercedes as being their strongest likely opposition besides Red Bull. The Silver Arrows, whose ‘F-duct’ rear wing will continue to be the subject of scrutiny in Malaysia despite having been declared legal by the FIA, showed extremely good pace in qualifying ‘Down Under’, but disappointed in the race.

“Despite a positive start, our first race weekend of the season in Australia did not turn out as we would have wished, and there has been, and will continue to be, a lot of hard work done before we take to the track in Malaysia,” team principal Ross Brawn says. “We have a fundamentally good car, now it is up to us to optimise its performance and achieve its potential on track."

Elsewhere, Lotus can be expected to pose a strong threat, especially after the way that they ran here last year, and Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Gosjean are determined to make up for the less than spectacular start they made to their season last week which largely did not reflect the huge potential they showed in testing.

Williams are also all revved up with somewhere to go after Pastor Maldonado’s impressively strong showing in Melbourne, and believe they will be stronger still here. Toro Rosso, Sauber and Force India will all be there in the midfield hunt, and Caterham hope to join them after a difficult first race. Marussia had much to be pleased about in Albert Park and will be building on that, while HRT simply hope to qualify and get some race miles under their belt.

Sepang features several high-speed changes of direction, coupled with long straights and tight hairpins which make the 5.543 kilometre (3.444 mile) track a thorough workout. Good handling balance is essential and it’s no coincidence that the winner of the Malaysian Grand Prix has gone on to win the world championship for the past three seasons.

To cope with the tough conditions that are always a feature of this race, Pirelli are bringing their P Zero Silver hard compound for the first time, together with the P Zero White medium tyre seen in Australia.

Although the Sepang track surface offers plenty of grip, any rubber laid down is frequently washed away by the heavy rain that falls most days, making the track ‘green’ at the start of each session.

The tyres on the left side of the car do the most work and the left rear is particularly stressed as it ensures traction, with its temperature rising to a peak of 130 degrees centigrade on the inner edge due to a lateral force of 3G.

Pirelli’s motorsport director, Paul Hembery, says: “Malaysia is one of the biggest challenges that we will face all year, and that is simply down to the nature of the track and the weather. We can expect track temperatures of up to around 50 degrees centigrade and a similar performance gap between the two nominated compounds as we saw in Australia. Our target is still for that gap to be less than one second - even though there is a whole step missing between the soft and the hard compounds that we have chosen for the race.

“Malaysia is good for overtaking, and that should fit in well with the characteristics of our P Zero tyres, which have been specifically designed to promote overtaking through a certain degree of deliberate degradation. Tyre strategy is going to be very important, particularly when it comes to looking after tyres at the beginning of a stint.”

The weather promises its usual high humidity and high ambient temperatures - between 33 and 35 degrees Celsius throughout the weekend - together with the usual threat of showers. These usually come late in the day, which may impact the race itself as they did in 2009. But don’t forget, though the rain can be torrential here, it dries very quickly.

The Sepang International Circuit has undergone only minor changes since 2011. The verge on the exit of Turn 8 has been re-worked in order to remove the bump in the grass which caused a problem last year and the entire debris fence around the outside of Turn 1 has been renewed. As in 2011, there will be one DRS zone, on the start-finish straight, with the detection point on the preceding back straight prior to the hairpin Turn 15.

Just one team is expected to field a 'Friday driver', with Williams tester Valtteri Bottas replacing Bruno Senna for opening practice. Sunday’s race will run over 56 laps or 310.408 kilometres (192.887 miles) and starts at 1600 hours local time, which is eight hours ahead of GMT.

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