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Malaysian Grand Prix preview

Can anyone stop Red Bull in Malaysia?

Can anyone stop Red Bull in Malaysia?

The second race of the 2011 Formula 1 season is at Sepang, Malaysia. A tweak of the DRS rules, as well as ominous weather in the region, is sure to make the race unprecictable this weekend…

DRS

The Drag Reduction System didn’t have a particularly large effect on the Australian GP (not necessarily a bad thing), but with the longer straights of Malaysia, the device will have a much bigger role to play here.

The operating zone has been extended from 600 to 700 metres. Also, race director Charlie Whiting hinted at placing more than one DRS zone on the track. This has not been confirmed for Malaysia, but it is being looked at for other races.

Several drivers, including Felipe Massa, have voiced their concern over this suggestion. However, for Sepang at least, the main straight will be the prime place to pass.

As with 2 weeks ago, a significant advantage can be played to the Red Bulls, if they are able to deploy their rear wings earlier out of the corners in qualifying.

Weather

Unusually cool and overcast weather in Melbourne led to cooler tyre temperatures and reduced tyre wear. No matter what happens this weekend, the same will not happen this time around.

A tweet from Lotus technical director Mike Gascoyne reads: “Lots of heavy thunderstorms around every day so the weather will be unpredictable this weekend.”

Most of the time, Malaysia suffers from searing heat of up to 40 degrees Celcius. Any other time, rain hammers down like a tropical storm.

Weather forecasters are predicting heavy showers on Saturday and Sunday. The rain is more likely to hit in the evening time, which is onimous considering the 16:00 start time for qualifying and the race.

Tyres

As previously mentioned, cool temperatures in Australia quelled fears briefly about over-wearing tyres, but the debacle may well return this weekend.

40 degree heat will have an exponentially larger effect than the 17-18 degree conditions from Melbourne. Pirelli are stating that up to 4 pit stops may be required.

That would be presuming that raceĀ  day was dry. If it is wet, then all bets are off, because nobody is sure yet how the extreme wet Pirelli tyres stand up to a full tank of fuel at the start of a race.

Predictions

One third of a lap in Sepang is spent in braking and cornering areas. This will play right into the hands of Red Bull, whose RB7 is renowned for ripping up tarmac with its unbeievable amounts of grip. On the other hand, the Red Bull is quite slow on the straights, which could hamper them on race day, if they come under pressure from their rivals.

Ferrari’s tyre conservation could prove crucial if the race is dry. A lack of race pace was highlighted in Melbourne, so strategy is what is needed to put them back on top. McLaren and Renault are the two main teams to challenge Vettel and Webber this weekend, but it is difficult to see how they can match their pace.

It will be interesting to see how Sauber fare. Their illegal rear wing may well have been the reason why they were so fast through the speed traps in Australia. If their top speed remains high this weekend, then we know they have a properly fast car.

At the back of the grid, speculation is mounting as to whether Virgin and HRT will even be able to qualify. A new front wing is being delivered to Hispania, while changes in the technical department are occuring for Virgin. However, I fear that it may not be enough for these backmarkers.

Australian Grand Prix preview

After a long winter of waiting, Formula 1 is back for 2011! The cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix has delayed the season start, but it has only served to up the expectations of the sport’s avid fans.

With yet another reshaking-up of the rulebook, the season opener looks to be incredibly unpredictable. Here’s a look at the important factors this weekend:

DRS (Drag Reduction System)

DRS, or the adjustable rear wing, is without a doubt the most talked-about innovation in years. It was designed by the FIA to aid overtaking manouvers, by increasing the speed advantage of the car behind.

DRS may be deployed at any time during practice and qualifying, but we’ll get back to that later. In the race, this can only be used on the main straight of a circuit, when a car is less than 1 second behind the car ahead, the corner before the straight.

The rear wing flap adjusts itself to create much less drag for 600 metres, which aids the car behind with an approx. 10-12 km/hr speed advantage. However, if the system makes overtaking too easy, then the 600 metre use of the device will be lowered, and vice-versa.

Also, the rear wing innovation cannot be used within the first 2 laps of the race, or within the first 2 laps after a Safety Car restart.

In Melbourne, DRS may not have a particularly big role to play, as the main straight rarely poses as an overtaking spot anyways. However, use of the device in qualifying will be very interesting. Like the F-duct last year, it will be interesting to see who can deploy their DRS quickest out of the corners, and gain a speed advantage. Those with the best rear grip will benefit most from this type of situation.

107% Rule

This rule re-introduction will have a more profound effect at the start of 2011. In Q1, any driver who sets a time more than 7% slower than the driver in 1st place will not be allowed to start the race. Exceptions are allowed by the stewards, such as if the car was unusually slow, but teams are not allowed to appeal these decisions.

This will be particularly bothersome to HRT this weekend. As they have not turned a wheel in their F111, there is a chance that they may not be able to qualify.

Most other teams should not be fazed by this rule.

KERS

Having been mutually dropped by all teams in 2010, Kinetic Energy Restoration Systems return for 2011.

At the time of writing, some teams have not yet confirmed or denied whether they are using KERS in Australia. Therefore, the start will be absolutely crucial for all drivers. Those without the unit (Hispania and Virgin confirmed so far) will be hugely disadvantaged by the loss of 80.5 horsepower at the start.

KERS has also been touted, along with DRS, as the solution to increasing overtaking in F1. A 60kW power boost combined with 10-12 km/h speed gain will be massively beneficial to those who can utilise it. Bear in mind though that the car in front could use more of his KERS supply at the overtaking spot, if he conserves it over the rest of the lap.

KERS may be used anywhere the driver likes, so it is better in some ways to DRS. As well as the main straight, between Turns 2 and 3, 8 and 9, and 12 and 13 will be the main spots for KERS to be deployed.

Tyres

The rebirth of Pirelli in Formula 1 has turned the formbook on its head in terms of tyre degradation. Bridgestone tyres were too consistent and durable, resulting in certain 1-stop races in 2010. Not any more.

Pirelli are bringing the soft and hard compounds to Melbourne. The general consensus is that a 3-stop strategy is the maximum required this weekend. Drivers have previously complained of up to 4 stops, but Pirelli have disregarded their claims.

Wear on the rear tyres is the main concern at the moment. Drivers with progressive throttle and steering input, like Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, may benefit by prolonging the use of their tyres by up to a handful of laps, which could be crucial in terms of race strategy.

Continuing from last year, drivers must still use both compounds of dry tyres in the race, and Q3 drivers must use the same set of tyres they qualified on to start the race. The latter of these rules seems like a poor decision by the FIA to keep, as it discourages diversity in tyre compound choices at the start of the race.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the tyre reshuffle works out this weekend.

But, with the unpredictable nature in recent years of F1, we will never know for certain until race day. Roll on 2011!

Monaco Grand Prix preview

Having practice sessions on Thursday makes it much easier for us to preview the Monaco Grand Prix easier. With what we have learned from yesterday on board, let’s have a look at this weekend’s race:

The track

There is little doubt that the Monaco track is the most difficult and punishing of the F1 tracks. This is mainly because of the barriers, which drivers are forced to scrape every single lap as they struggle for pace. The slightest mistake will result in their car flying into the barriers, putting them out of the race instantly. We saw this in practice to Kamui Kobayashi.

The Snt Devote corner is one of the most challenging corners on the track. At the start of the race, it is notorious for a pile-up at the back of the field, though oddly enough this hasn’t happened in recent years. Expect that to change though, as the heavy fuel loads and cold tyres at the start, paired with inexperienced drivers at the back, could well mean several drivers could get taken out. If they do, the safety car will be a certainty.

Next up is Massenet, or Turn 3. This is a long blind entry left hander, which requires good turn-in of the car to take it quickly. Understeer would be preferable here, as oversteet would result in the car spinning and hitting the outside barrier, as Karun Chandhok did yesterday.

Another difficult turn this year will be the Harbour Chicane, Turn 11. This is after the tunnel straight, and enters a heavy-braking area, where the track also goes downhill. Then, a quick left, then right, and the car is on the way to Tabac corner. The biggest danger here is losing control in the braking area, and possibly hitting a car in front. We saw loss of control here many times in practice, most noticeably by Jaime Alguersuari, who did very well to stop the car from crashing. This is also the only opportunity for overtaking, but don’t expect to see much of it.

The next difficult turn is the last one, Anthony Noghes. This is a bumpy right-hander, which requires maximum speed to keep going quickly on the pit straight. Several drivers went very close to the right barrier here yesterday.

As usual, Red Bull have their own analysis of the Monaco street circuit:

Tyres

Bridgestone are supplying the super-soft and medium tyres for this race. By the data we got yesterday, some teams are struggling with tyre wear on the super-soft compound. The medium compound, on the other hand, is quite a bit slower in terms of pace, though we are not sure by how much. However, there is not too much difficulty with warming them up either.

If drivers do opt for the super-soft tyres for the first stint, then they will only last for about 12 laps. After this, medium tyres will be the preferable choice, but it is unknown if they will last the distance.

Weather

A few days ago, many people were predicting rain for Thursday, but very little for the weekend. So far, we have only seen very slight rain on Thursday. Most weather services are only predicting for a chance of rain on Sunday, but not much of a chance. Therefore, it will probably be a dry weekend.

Air temperature will be around 20C, track temperature around 25C. There will be a slight wind on Saturday, which may cause problems with the drivers in places, but it will slow down by Sunday.

Drivers to watch

Fernando Alonso – After topping both Friday Practice sessions, and the Red Bulls being not as competitive, I would tip Alonso for the pole and win this weekend. The Ferrari has good pace here, despite the lack of the F-duct, due to good mechanical grip. Felipe Massa will only pose a threat to Fernando if he qualifies in front of him, which I doubt.

Michael Schumacher – There’s no denying that the Mercedes team are slowly working the car in Schumacher’s favour rather than Rosberg. Regardless of our opinions, it means that Michael will have a better chance this weekend, thanks to the chronic understeer being mostly fixed. A win is still out of the question, but I think it is within the car’s ability to challenge for a podium. Just as long as he doesn’t forget how to take La Rascasse.

Robert Kubica – Monaco is a circuit that often brings the gap down between the teams, since aerodynamic grip has very little effect here. Because of this, having a slower car won’t disadvantage Robert Kubica too much. He is still the outsider in the title race at the moment, and a good performance in Monaco would certainly help his cause. I’d saty that he has the ability to get a podium this weekend.

Adrian Sutil – Like I said about Kubica, the Force India’s disadvantages are made smaller at the Monaco circuit. In practice, we have seen Sutil do quite well, whereas team-mate Vitantonio Liuzzi has been in the lower end of the midfield pack. His skill is undeniable, and he is improving in terms of keeping the car out of the barriers. A few points wouldn’t be too bad here in Monaco.

Spanish Grand Prix preview

The flyaway Formula 1 races have concluded, so now the sport returns to Europe until Singapore in September (excluding Canada). The first of the European races this season is in Barcelona, Spain.

The track

Like China, I have voiced my dislike of this circuit, since it is very difficult to overtake here. It does, however, pose a challenge to both the drivers and the team. High g-force corners like Campsa (Turn 9) will be a tough test on the driver, while the entire track requires perfect aerodynamic setup, which will be difficult for the team.

Overtaking opportunities are slim here, but the bet option would be on the main straight. The final chicane, put in this track in 2007, has helped slightly improved chances of getting past an opponent on the long straight. Still, it is difficult to follow the car ahead around the rest of the track, so overtaking may remain a challenge this year.

Here is Mark Webber’s video of him talking us through a lap of the Spanish Grand Prix

Weather

There is little chance of rain in Barcelona this weekend. On Sunday, there is a 45% possibility of rain falling at some point within a 24-hour period, with a 70& chance of Friday. Those figures may seem very high, but don’t forget it’s referring to an entire 24-hour period, so the chances of it falling on a 1.5 hour slot in the middle of the afternoon is very low.

So, if it remains dry, air temperature will be 20C at highest, with track temperature quite higher. Wind speeds will be 6m/s, which may well pose a challenge at corners like Campsa. The cars will be very sensitive to wind speed at this corner, where the track inclines while turning right, so watch out for this over the weekend.

Tyres

Bridgestone will be supplying the hard and soft tyres, the same as last year. There were no particular problems with heavy tyre wear last year, but that could change. With the full fuel tanks at the start, and heavy aerodynamics providing lots of grip, the softer tyres could burn out quite quickly if they are used for the first stint.

Still, I’m expecting the teams to run the soft tyres first, for about 15 laps or so, then switch to the harder tyres for the rest of the race. An alternative strategy would be to run two stints on the soft tyre, then one on the hard at the end. This was attempted by Rubens Barrichello in Malaysia, but it dodn’t work. However, if a driver wanted consistently fast pace throughout the race, without worries of tyre wear, then Barcelona would definitely be the track to use this two-stop strategy.

The three new teams may try vastly different tactics, since their cars are probably lacking in downforce. This especially will apply to Lucas di Grassi, who won’t be able to make it to the flag, thanks to his fuel tank issue. Some of these 6 drivers may opt to take on two sets of soft tyres, like I said earlier, to keep up the grip levels on the car, and to stick to the cars ahead. If reliability doesn’t get in the way, then they would have to change to hard tyres for the final stint.

Otherwise, as long as it stays dry, there should be no other changes in strategy.

Drivers to watch

Sebastian Vettel – It has been acknowledged that Red Bull have the car to beat in Spain, so Vettel is obviously the man who I’m tipping for the win. The RB6 can consume 10kg less fuel than its rivals, which gives Vettel and Webber a huge advantage for the first stint. Also, as we have seen, their car is geared towards a balance of aerodynamic and mechanical grip, which perfectly suits this circuit. I would put Webber down on the list here, but I feel that Sebastian is just better on race day. Having said that, Mark coming second wouldn’t be a surprise at all.

Fernando Alonso – If anyone is to challenge the Red Bulls, it is certainly Alonso. First of all, this is his home circuit, always packed to the brim with his adoring fans, and Fernando always tries to keep them happy. Even with the underperforming Renault he had a few years back, he always tried his best at this track, and often did very well, such as running 5th in 2008, before a gearbox problem stopped him in his tracks. In fact, this circuit is really where he put his name on the map, back in 2003, when he chased Michael Schumacher all the way to the flag, and instantly created a new Spanish hero.

His Ferrari car should hold up well here as well. Their new F-duct system was tested by Giancarlo Fisichella a few days ago, and should be put on the car in time for the race. This will give them the advantage down the main straight, without crucially compromising them in the heavy-downforce corners of the track. Just don’t mention engine failures.

Vitaly Petrov – His Renault car has been pitched as better than the Mercedes, so there is no better place to prove this than in Barcelona. While Mercedes will be bringing an updated car, which they hope will fix the chronic understeer they have been suffering, I still think that Kubica and Petrov can beat Schumacher, though it remains to be seen about Rosberg.

Still, Vitaly has scored his first points in F1, so he should be getting up to speed fully in the next few races. I’m not expecting him to match Robert, but getting within a few places would be a good achievement.

Bruno Senna – Despite the famous name, he hasn’t thrashed Chandhok like I thought he might. While the HRT car has surely been holding him back, he needs to perform better if he is to prove himself, such as not being out-qualified by Karun. Lotus are still well in front, but I would be looking for Bruno to at leat challenge them this weekend.

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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