2010 Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix Preview

Only a week after an incident-packed Australian GP, the F1 circus arrives in Malaysia this weekend for the third instalment of the 2010 F1 world championship. Here, forumula1.com presents its definitive preview of the weekend ahead at the Sepang International Circuit.

Specifications:
Date: Sunday, April 4th Start Time: 4 a.m. (et)
Site: Sepang International Circuit (1999) — Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Track: 5.543 km (3.444 miles), 15-turn, clockwise road course
Laps: 56
Miles: 192.887
Circuit Capacity: 133,000
2009 Pole Sitter: Jenson Button
2009 Race Winner: Jenson Button
Lap Record: 1:34.223 (Juan Pablo Montoya, BMWWilliams, 2004)

Previous winners:

2009 Jenson Button, Brawn-Mercedes, 182.919 k.p.h./55:30.622
2008 Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 203.971 k.p.h./1:31:18.555
2007 Fernando Alonso, McLaren, 201.893 k.p.h./1:32.14.930
2006 Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault, 205.397 k.p.h./1:30.40.529
2005 Fernando Alonso, Renault, 203.407 k.p.h./1:31:33.736
2004 Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, 204.384 k.p.h./1:31:07.490
2003 Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren, 201.629 k.p.h./1:32:22.195
2002 Ralf Schumacher, Williams, 1:34:12.912
2001 Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, 1:47:34.801
2000 Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, 1:35:54.235
1999 Eddie Irvine, Ferrari, 1.36:38.494

Tyres: From Bridgestone Motorsport director, Hiroshi Yasukawa.

“Last year we had a very exciting Malaysian Grand Prix because of the weather, and this was a good event for us to showcase our full weather range of Bridgestone Potenza tyres… This year also marks the 10th Anniversary of Bridgestone in Malaysia and our colleagues will be marking the occasion with a series of events in the build up to the Malaysia Grand Prix. Furthermore, there will be particular interest in the race for Malaysians this year as they have their own team for the first time with Lotus Racing.”

“Drivers will have to be careful not to lock their brakes, especially when they have heavy fuel loads and cool tyres in the early laps. The section between turns seven and eleven is very important at this track as they give a very good illustration of a good overall car set-up. Being strong here is crucial for a good performance at Sepang. High temperatures are usually a factor in Malaysia and this could mean more tyre degradation than we’ve seen so far this year, particularly given the severity of the track. Last year illustrated that you never know what to expect in Malaysia.”

Tips:

A good bet for this weekend would be the appearance of rain at some point. The weather is notoriously fickle in Malaysia at this time of year and when it comes down in this part of the world, it really comes down. Last season’s race was more like a powerboat derby than an F1 race, and its abbreviation was a pity for spectators, and only half points ended up being awarded. It was, however, not navigable for the drivers, and a clear and present danger to life and limb coupled with the gloom due to the late start time. Although that start time remains the same, this year floodlights will be used in the later stages of the race.

Sebastian Vettel flew at this circuit last year, and will be looking to prove that he is in the championship running despite mechanical gremlins having dogged his first two outings. His team-mate Mark Webber has a point to prove this season – that he is not going to give Vettel an easy ride in the next garage, and that he still has enough racing life in him to challenge for the championship.

Meanwhile, over at Ferrari, a win will be on the cards. Ferrari still believe that they have the best overall machine in the F10; if not as quick as the Red Bull over a lap, it is much more reliable, and in the hands of Fernando Alonso in particular a big threat to anybody else’s aspirations. The bizarre implementation of what was effectively team orders last race in Malaysia is not something that Ferrari fans will want to see repeated this weekend in Malaysia. It may well prove to be a chink in the red armour.

McLaren will carry momentum into the Malaysian event, particularly with last week’s winner Jenson Button. He is reported to be in high spirits and very comfortable in the team, while team-mate Lewis Hamilton will want to re-establish his position as team leader. Their engine partner Mercedes works’ team have renewed confidence after being relatively competitive in Australia: Michael Schumacher is with his back to the wall and will be desperate to put Nico Rosberg in his place.

From the rest, Renault and Force India are among the other teams looking to profit from inclement weather conditions or any mistake on the part of the Big Four. Williams are in with an outside chance of a top five finish if things go their way, while Toro Rosso’s gutsy performer Sebastian Buemi should not be ruled out.

It is expected that the Malaysian event will be nothing more than another development race for the three new teams, who are still some way behind the others in terms of pace. Lotus seem to be in the best position out of the three, with Virgin struggling with ongoing chassis and fuel concerns and HRT reportedly locked in a dispute with their chassis manufacturer Dallara.

Weather forecast (as of 1/4/2010, with thanks to the Met Office):

Rain is expected throughout the race weekend, with Saturday seeing the heaviest showers. It is expected to have cooled to 30C by the time of qualifying, but rain is expected to continue into the evening. Sunday will see more of the same, but the clouds will be less thick by the time of the race. It stands a good chance of being a wet race, although the wind speed will be low throughout the weekend.

Selected driver and team quotes:

Ferrari: Fernando Alonso: “[Australia] was a great show for everybody, a good race to watch and also enjoyable from inside the cockpit. The car was quick enough for me to be able to overtake, after going to the back of the field and in the end, fourth place was a good reward for the team and I am extremely happy about it. Maybe with the spin at the first corner I lost the opportunity to win, but these things happen. It was very good for our championship situation.”

“The McLarens, Red Bulls and Mercedes are our main rivals and only later in the year, will we see which of the eight drivers are in contention for the Drivers’ championship. After just two races, everybody is still a contender and in the fight, even if currently the Red Bull is probably the quickest and they are the guys to watch at the moment, even if they have not put together the perfect weekend. When they do, they could finish a race first and second, so we cannot relax and must keep working to improve the car, especially as I expect McLaren and Mercedes to be more in the fight very soon.”

Felipe Massa: “I hope we can beat the Red Bulls and all the other cars in fact. It will be tough, because, as I said this is a very challenging circuit, which is difficult from the physical point of view. I like it though, because it has high speed corners and quick changes of direction and it can be tough on tyres, which means we will need to have a good set-up to help us look after them.”

McLaren: Jenson Button: “It was a tremendous achievement to score our first win of the season in Melbourne last week, and it’s given every single member of the team even greater enthusiasm for this weekend. Even so, I think we travel to Sepang mindful that the characteristics of the circuit probably won’t suit our car as well as it will suit some of the others but I’m confident that, once again, we’ll be fighting at or near the front. We’re only two races in, but I think the development race will already be starting to have an influence on performance. It’s the rate of improvement that will most influence the battle at the front. And I’m 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. I’m convinced we have the firepower to develop faster than our key rivals.

“Sepang is an awesome circuit, one that I love driving, and I think that I’ll be able to further develop and improve my relationship with the car here. It’s a circuit that not only requires smooth and precise input, but it also needs real commitment through some of the high-speed stuff. I think it’s a circuit that every driver loves.”

Lewis Hamilton: “Sepang has some of the best high-speed corners on the entire calendar. And, this year, I think we’ve got a car that will be far better suited to the circuit than we did last year, so I’m heading to Malaysia optimistic of a good result. It’s a fast circuit, that requires a well-balanced car with a good level of downforce. In some ways, it’s quite similar to Barcelona, where we tested well before the start of the season, so I’m optimistic that we’ll be competitive this weekend. However, I still think it might be difficult to make up the difference that’s needed in qualifying. Hopefully, that’s something that we’ll be able to solve as soon as possible.

“Last year we saw what could happen here once the weather took over. While I’m hopeful that this year’s race will be run in the dry, you can never discount the threat of rain. Either way, I think we’ll be competitive.”

Martin Whitmarsh: Every single member of this team worked tirelessly to put us in a position to win the Australian Grand Prix and we were tremendously buoyed by both Jenson and Lewis’s incredible performances. As a result, we travel to Malaysia keen to maintain the level of competitiveness we demonstrated in Melbourne. We’re under no illusions that the regular pacesetters will once again be up at the front, but I think we’ve now shown that we’re a match for the competition particularly with our race pace, which is up there with the very best. On a broader note, it was very satisfying to see Formula 1 deliver such an invigorating and exciting race in Melbourne, and I hope that this weekend’s race can continue that trend. It’s a circuit that delivers natural spectacle and is one of the best places in the world for watching grand prix cars at high-speed. It looks like we have all the ingredients for a classic season.”

Mercedes GP: NICO ROSBERG
⌠Malaysia is one of my favourite circuits on the Formula One calendar. It’s fast and challenging with a nice layout and a real variation of corners which makes Sepang an exciting track to drive. I have generally qualified well there, starting from fourth on the grid last year and third in 2006. Although we didn’t quite achieve the qualifying and race results that were our full potential in Australia, we made good progress on the set-up of our car over the weekend. Sepang is a different type of track to Albert Park but these developments should benefit us and it’s a good circuit to see exactly how quick each team is at the moment. We will hope to continue our run of points-scoring finishes and stay within reach of the leaders in the Championship. ”

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER
⌠I have taken a lot of positives from the race weekend in Melbourne. 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 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.

ROSS BRAWN
⌠Malaysia will be a very special week for the team as the home race of our title partner PETRONAS, who are also the official sponsors of the Malaysian Grand Prix. In the first year of our partnership together, we are looking forward to working together here in Malaysia this week and it would be very nice to achieve a special result at one of our home Grands Prix. Before the race weekend gets underway, our drivers will be performing demo runs at the PETRONAS Pit Pulse site close to the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur and making various appearances at the event. The Pit Pulse programme looks set to be spectacular and we hope to welcome many of the team’s fans there over the next few days. Looking ahead to the race, the team performed well in Melbourne, even though we do not yet have the pace to be competing right at the front of the field. Four points finishes from the first two races puts us in third place in the Constructors’ Championship and we need to keep this momentum going and keep scoring points whilst we work on improvements to the car.”