Malaysian Grand Prix preview

As I said earlier, the Malaysian Grand Prix of 2009 was a complete washout, with the race only completing half distance. This year, we hope that everyone has learned their lesson, and we can get back to racing at this very demanding circuit.

Weather

This year there are thunderstorms predicted for this weekend, which could hugely affect the race again. Just have a look at the BBC’s weather forecast page if you don’t believe me. Humidity will be high, as well as very heavy showers and possibly storms. Temperatures will be between 25 and 32 degrees for the weekend.

The sapping humidity is the biggest challenge for the drivers here. Most of them lose a litre of body fluid per hour here, due to the extreme heat and humidity. Therefore, keeping cool is obviously the challenge. Most teams could well simply enlarge their drinking water supply, but that would leave less room for mechanical components.

As well as the drivers, the cars will take a beating as well. The hot, dense air in Sepang means the quality of air going into the engine is poorer than usual, which could mean the engine will overheat or excessively wear down. Expect Renault’s engines to explode at some point during the weekend. While there is less time here spent at full throttle than in Malasyia, the oil temperatures will have to be kept in check, to keep the engine running smoothly.

The track

The Sepang circuit is one of the best tracks produced by Herman Tilke, but that’s not saying much. There are 8 high speed stretches, 3 slow corners, and 2 main spots for overtaking. The tricky Turn 1 will be the best opportunity to overtake, especially on the first lap. Apart from this, Turn 3 is also a good braking zone, which results in a few overtakes here. However, most of these overtakes would result from the driver in front failing to get good traction after Turn 2.

Turn 4 is very difficult in the wet, as shown last year when Sebastien Buemi spun out at this turn. Turn 9 is susspectible to a spin or 2, as corner entry and exit is very difficult, due to a huge loss of speed while on a sloped part of the track. Turn 14 is difficult, but rarely gets overtakes here, apart from Button getting past Alonso last year.

The final corner going onto the back straight is crucial for getting traction, as it leads onto the main straight, and an ideal overtaking spot. Red Bull have explained the track in further detail, with Mark Webber:

Tyres

For this race, Bridgestone are bringing the hard and soft tyres, as they did last year. There weren’t any problems with tyres last year (apart from the rain) so there should be little change this year. Since Australia, the softer tyres have proven themselves to be the much better of the two compounds, being powerful and can also be very durable.

For this year, expect most drivers to start on the soft tyres. Then they will try and use them for as long as possible, up to half distance if possible, and then switch to the hard tyre. Of course, if rain falls like it could, then all strategies are out the window. If this happens, then that means both dry compounds do not have to be used, and the proper racing begins.

Of course, there is one more thing to consider when talking about tyres in Malaysia. Ferrari used a very clever strategy in 2001 to take a 1-2 victory here, by taking advantage of the circuit’s strange rain patterns. In Sepang, when it rains, it pours, as everyone knows. In 2001, it did, and nearly everyone took on extreme wet tyres. Ferrari, however, instructed Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello to take on intermidiates, even though the track was completely saturated. At one point, they couldn’t catch up with the safety car, and they were aquaplaning on the straights. But, the Sepang circuit has a habit of some parts of the track drying off extremely quickly. Ferrari knew this, and watched as the other’s extreme wet tyres fell apart after a few laps. Schumacher and Barrichello scythed their way up the grid, and performed the easiest overtakes on Hakkinen and Coulthard they had ever seen. By the time the conditions were right, and everyone switched to dry tyres, the Ferraris were miles ahead.

That sort of strategy would rarely be used, because of the many circumstances that would have to be in place for it to work, but this is Malaysia, and it could well happen again.

My predictions

My initial instinct is to support Sebastian Vettel for the win again, but I don’t think it’s going to happen here either. His Renault engine, or his mechanical parts, simply won’t hold up against this track’s serious heat and humidity.

His team-mate, Mark Webber, isn’t a likely candidate either. While he holds the same machinery as Vettel, he doesn’t have the raw pace to beat the other drivers, although he will probably get better reliability than Sebastian. This leaves Ferrari as my choice for the win. Their package still beats McLaren’s, and as long as they don’t have engine problems like they did in Bahrain, they should be out front.

The question is which driver? Fernando Alonso is in front of Massa in the driver’s championship, but Massa did well last race to hold him back. Fernando has had problems in the past with overheating, so I think that Massa will take his first win of the year here. Alonso could get on the podium if possible.

Jenson Button has improved a lot in McLaren, and I think he will be able to beat Lewis Hamilton again this race. Lewis must be hugely frustrated after Australia, and with no manager at the moment, he might not be able to restrain himself properly. Jenson’s tyre managment skills will come in very useful in the hot and humid Sepang, but mostly in the dry rather than the wet. If it does rain, then Hamilton will be the one to beat, and would end up on the podium at least.

Unfortunately, the Mercedes cars will take some time to catch up to the top 3 teams, if at all, so I don’t think even a podium is at stake here for them. As long as it stays dry, that is. If it rains, then Schumacher could very well blitz his way up the field and annihilate everyobody like we saw years ago. Rosberg, like Barrichello did in Malaysia 2001, should be following him all the way, but won’t get past. Being realistic, though, the best they can hope for is one driver on the podium.

Force India claim this year’s car is better suited to medium-downforce circuits, so let’s prove their claim. Vitantonio Liuzzi should be the driving force again this weekend, as he has shown great pace so far this year. Adrian Sutil could do well, but if it rains, then the explosion of a Force India taking out a grandstand will be heard in my attic on the other side of the world. If it stays dry, then a handful of points would be good work for the team. If it rains, less so, but still a few.

Williams, Toro Rosso and Sauber are teams I’m all tipping to struggle this weekend. The new boys of Hulkenberg, Kobayashi and Alguersuari (he still counts for a few more races) will hardly be expected to get into the top ten, especially if it rains. As for the other drivers, I don’t think any of their machiery is up to the job of doing well here. If anyone from any of these teams were to get points, I would say Rubens Barrichello of Williams, since he has huge experience of this circuit, he’s good in the wet conditions, and he knows a bit about tyre strategy here.

As for the new teams? You really can’t expect much from them, in the dry or the wet. The hot and humid conditions will blow their hydraulics and engines to pieces in the dry. None of these teams exactly have a good downforce setup, so they would struggle even more in the wet. The 3 new drivers out of these teams (Senna, Chandhok and Di Grassi) may well fall prey to the body-sapping nature of this track. However, if any of them got to the finish, it would be a great achievement for them.

But these are all my thoughts. What happens in Sepang this weekend will certainly be exciting, and may well throw up a few surprises, especially if the local weather forecaster is correct again.

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