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Preview: 2012 Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang International Circuit

We head to Malaysia for the second race of the season, the second in two weeks and also the second flyaway race on the trot. What that means is that we will, in all likelihood be seeing more of the same as what we saw in the season opener at Melbourne in terms of absolute pace. There generally is little scope for upgrades or significant tweaks at flyaway races, and the back-to-back scheduling makes it even tougher. Mercedes and RedBull are bringing updates though. It will be interesting to see what sort of an improvement they show on Sunday.

 

Track background

Malaysia is a challenging track for the cars and tyres purely die to its excellent design, but it is the unpredictable equatorial weather with its extreme heat and humidity that makes it even tougher for the machinery, not to mention the drivers themselves. It is one of the most challenging race weekends for the drivers in terms of fitness: physical as well as mental. The sapping heat and dehydration coupled with the fast and flowing nature of the track place great demands on the body. Expect to see some helmets leaning on the side as the race goes on.

The track itself is a great mix of fast sweeping bends, long straights and a couple of hairpin bends. The Basil shaped grandstands overlooking the back straight, the final hairpin and the stat-finish straight make Sepang one of the best cricuits to catch a live view of the action. It is this grandstand complex that makes for the most exciting racing. With the DRS zones located on these straights, expect a lot of overtaking all throughout the race, specially given how close the midfield looked in the first rece of the season. While the two straights reward the engine horsepower and low downforce setups, the 2nd sector with the sweeping left-right S-bend at turns 5-6 followed by the fast double apex right hand turns 7-8 running down through turns 9-13 demands high aerodynamic and mechanical grip. This makes coming up with the perfect balanced setup, a serious tight-rope walk for the teams. Many would say that the secret of clocking a quick time around Sepang is all-round precision.

This year, we have 5 drivers who have previously won at Sepang. No points for guessing that they all belong to the World Champions’ club. Michael Schumacher with 3 wins for Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel with 2 wins for RedBull [he'll love to make it 3 in a row, an unprecedented feat at Sepang] Fernando Alonso with 2 wins for [ 1 with Renault, 1 with McLaren], Kimi Raikkonen with 2 wins [1 for McLaren, 1 for Ferrari] and Jenson Button with 1 win for Brawn are the fast 5. It is interesting to note that for the last three seasons, the winner at Sepang has gone on to win the World Championship, and the stats favour the winning constructor very heavily, too. If you’ve built a car good enough to win at Sepang, you’ve got a car that will be strong pretty much everywhere else.

 

Qualifying Round-up

After dominating free practice, McLaren put on a great performance to lock out the front row, with Lewis Hamilton snatching the pole from Jenson Button. Mercedes are looking strong this weekend, with Schumacher out-qualifying Rosberg [starting at P7] to take 3rd place. At the end of Q1 though, there was that graphic we’ve been waiting for 3 years now: Michael Schumacher – P1. To those who have grown up watching Schumacher storm to 7 world titles, it was a nostalgic sight indeed.

Another such moment was at the end of Q2, when it was Raikkonen’s turn to head the timing sheets. Raikkonen, having qualified in 5th position will start his race from P10 owing to a 5-place penalty for a gear-box change. His Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean continued an impressive start to his season, clocking he 7th fastest time, slated to start the race in P6. The RedBulls seemed to have decent pace, but not enough to challenge McLaren and Mercedes over one lap. With Webber[P4] opting to start on the medium tyres and Vettel [P5] starting on the harder tyres, they look braced to put in a strong race performance. Sergio Perez and Fernando Alonso rounded up the top 10, both seemingly driving beyond their cars’ potential.

No Force India drivers could qualify for Q3, making it a disappointing result for the team. Williams seem to have an edge over them as well as Toro Rosso in the midfield battle with both Maldonado and Bruno Senna turning in decent performances. At the back of the grid, both HRTs will line up for their first Sunday of the season, as Kovalainen’s Caterham will start from the back also dueto a 5-place penalty for overtaking during the safety car period in the last race.

 

Watch out for:

  1. Michael Schumacher: The veteran starts from he second row and finds himself well placed to fight for the win for the first time since his comeback. The Mercedes reliability is under question, and the extreme heat will not make it any easier. Will we see the familiar leap on the top step once again?
  2. Sebastian Vettel: Starting from P5 on the hard tyres, it will be interesting to see the double world champion’s strategy as RedBull look to keep in touch with the flying McLarens.
  3. Kamui Kobayashi: P17 start for Kobayashi means just one thing – more overtaking and wheel-to-wheel racing!!
  4. Lotus Renault: Lotus have shown that they have a competitive car. Raikkonen will be looking to build on his solid start in Melbourne, and Grosjean will want to get amongst the points after being chucked out of the running in the last race.
  5. The Sepang Weather: Rain is predicted for Sunday afternoon at Sepang and from past experience, Malaysian GPs tend to be extermely topsy-turvy in the wet. Who can forget the 2004 Malaysian GP, where virtually everone spun as the rain started during the first couple of laps, or the 2009 race which had to be stopped midway due to thunderstorms! Rain usually results in tyre poker and evens out the field to an extent by taking away a lot of aerodynamic grip. It definitely makes for great television!
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