Formula One enters the second round of 2006 off the back of a fantastic race in Bahrain – will we get another cracker at the Sepang International Circuit?
There are plenty of questions awaiting answers after the first round – the most pressing of which being whether McLaren-Mercedes have the speed and reliability for Kimi Raikkonen to become a third championship contender. Having finished third in Bahrain from 22nd on the grid, from a front row slot in Sepang Raikkonen could give Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher more to worry about.
Rubens Barrichello’s gearbox problems meant that little was revealed about the balance of power at Honda, though impressions are that Button holds the upper hand. Similarly, Mark Webber might have more to fear from new team-mate Nico Rosberg – though the rookie has the disadvantage of not having raced at Malaysia before.
In 2005 Jarno Trulli gave Toyota their first podium finish at Sepang, but you’d be a fool to bet on them getting in the top three this year. Their fastest race lap in Bahrain was 1.7 seconds off the ultimate pace. For the amount of money, resources and time they have had at their disposal, there is simply no excuse for such a poor showing. Expect heads to roll if this dire form continues.
The fierce heat of Malaysia combined with the long straights of Sepang is a cruel test for the new, two-race V8 engines. The impressive levels of reliability we saw in Bahrain may not be sustained in Malaysia – especially when you consider that the top four finishers were all pushing each other right until the end of the race.
Of course, Sepang isn’t just a car-breaker, it’s a driver-breaker. If any of the rookies aren’t up to scratch, it will tell here. Youngesters Rosberg and Scott Speed are likely to be fine, but 31 year-old Yuji Ide, who only got his F1 call-up late in the winter, may struggle.
There was some suggestion in Bahrain that the Michelin tyres improved as more rubber was laid on the track throughout the weekend and the surface became cleaner. This and the Bridgestone tyre’s better one-lap speed would explain Bridgestone-shod Ferrari’s strong performance in qualifying. The heat of Sepang may, therefore, benefit the Michelin runners.
The new qualifying system was well-received in Bahrain, although the amount of time wasted in the third session as the top drivers burnt their excess fuel away was a bone of contention. The wider, longer Sepang circuit should mean traffic is less of a problem – but expect the same cacophony of complaints from the drivers as we heard in Bahrain.
With no time for the teams to test and develop their cars within the next week, all the signs point towards us having another close and competitive race in Malaysia.