For nine years the Malaysian Grand Prix was the greatest challenge on the calendar for the teams and drivers of Formula One. Then, in 2008, someone decided to hold a Grand Prix in Singapore and Malaysia lost its ‘Everest-style’ challenge.
Nevertheless, the sweltering temperatures and soaring humidity remain a mountain for the drivers to overcome this weekend as the 2013 Formula One season really gathers pace. For the second time in less than seven days, V8 F1 machines, the last of an endangered breed, will send their echoes rolling across the landscape of an exotic and far-flung kingdom.
Some of them will be more eager than others though to get back behind the wheel; Kimi Raikkonen excelled himself in Melbourne to take his second Australian Grand Prix victory and a second win would amply demonstrate the arrival of Lotus GP in F1’s ‘big time’, whereas McLaren, horrendously off the pace in Oz, will be less than excited about their prospects for the coming weekend.
“Malaysia is a difference place, it’s going to be much hotter there so it’s very difficult to say how the cars will feel, who will be fastest after having just one race.” said Melbourne victor Raikkonen. “I think we have to do two or three races before we really know who is where and what’s going to happen.”
While Melbourne gave us food for thought and hard data to analyse for the first time this year, Malaysia will be the acid test proving whether the conclusions we drew from the first race were exactly that, or just assumptions. One thing is for sure – the regular order has largely been maintained. Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes are sitting at the top of the pile with Force India, Sauber and Williams a little further behind. Caterham, Toro Rosso and Marussia bring up the rear as they did in 2012. One notable exception is the Woking powerhouse that is the McLaren team; a disastrous Australian GP weekend, one dubbed the ‘worst day’ by Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh, left the team with just 2 points collected by Jenson Button. While Sergio Perez believes the layout of the Sepang circuit will be kinder to the MP4/28’s sensitive ride systems, expect no great increase in form from McLaren. Button’s points in Melbourne were harvested from a blend of fortune, skill and perseverance that often pays dividends in the topsy-turvy first race of the season. Come the second race things begin to settle down into a pattern and squeezing a surprise result becomes more and more difficult. If one of Britain’s foremost cars is to score this weekend it will be a result in more ways than one.
“Clearly, our performance in Australia was not up to our high expectations” says Martin Whitmarsh “and we have been working tirelessly to bring additional performance to MP4-28. But the short turnaround between rounds one and two of the championship means that we’ll arrive in Malaysia with less scope to improve our fortunes.”
Of the latter’s old team there has been a worrying degree of anonymity so far in 2013. Starting behind their rivals in testing by debuting the FW35 only at the first Barcelona test, it appears the team that last won a title in 1997 is slipping off the radar once again. Maldonado lost out ‘down under’ in the rain-affected first qualifying session and was clearly unhappy about it, so expect him to come out all guns blazing in Sepang. Valtteri Bottas, the much-vaunted ‘super-rookie’, also failed to deliver on his promise so a solid double finish for Williams would not go amiss this weekend.
Sauber too had a less-than-perfect start to the new season, with a fuel system failure on the car of Nico Hulkenberg ensuring the team ushered in its 20th year with just one black and grey machine starting the Grand Prix. Gutierrez made it to the finish, but failed to set the world alight and will hope to do better in Malaysia. Whether they can or not remains to be seen, the C32 not yet showing the same fearsome turn of speed its predecessor could develop. It will be very hard for the little team from Hinwil to repeat the shock result of Sergio Perez in 2012.
While Ferrari were in bad shape twelve months ago, they enter this second weekend of the year with a significantly higher points tally. Fernando Alonso’s 2nd and Felipe Massa’s continued return to form with 4th netted the Scuderia a healthy 30 points in the Constructors Championship, and if Alonso can repeat his 2012 victory over Perez the Spaniard could well be on his way to that elusive third world title. To do so would mean overcoming the combined threat of Lotus and Red Bull, a task not to be taken lightly.
Red Bull made the rest of the field look as though they were in GP2 cars in Albert Park during qualifying and Malaysia is a circuit that has brought them success in the past, with Sebastian Vettel dominating the event in 2010 and 2011. While it is blindingly fast in qualifying trim, it lacks that edge during the race which would make it invincible, and while Mark Webber recovered brilliantly from his startline shenanigans his World Champion team-mate destroyed his tyres too quickly, necessitating the extra pitstop that cost him the victory.
He wasn’t the only guilty party. Such was the endurance of the Lotus that Raikkonen was the only one of the top six to avoid making a third stop. Its pure speed is still a weakness in relation to the Red Bull and Ferrari, but if tyre wear is a factor this weekend expect Raikkonen or Grosjean to make the podium. Should the Pirelli’s last, it would be a foolish person who betted on anything other than a Red Bull winning this race.