Malaysian Grand Prix 2007 preview

Malaysian Grand Prix 2007, Sepang circuit diagramThe Sepang track appeared to be under threat until recent weeks when the Malaysian government confirmed they would do what they can to keep the race there.

It’s good thing too because it’s one of Hermann Tilke’s better efforts as a circuit, with fast bends for drama and the vital mix of long, wide straights leading into tight corners for overtaking.

If you peeled away the shiny veneer of newness on the Australian Grand Prix the harsh truth is that the race wasn’t very exciting at all. But let’s reserve judgement on the new rules (in particular the controversial tyre regulations) until they’ve at least had a few races for the teams to explore all the options they offer.

Sepang is a tough technical challenge for the drivers and cars alike, and has a history of teasing crucial mistakes out of the front runners.

Add in the unpredictable weather and a rules reinterpretation that has disadvantaged the form team Ferrari, and there’s good cause to be optimistic about the prospects of a good race at Sepang.

McLaren-Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica, Melbourne, 2007Lewis Hamilton was the toast of Melbourne after his scintillating debut. But amid all the hoo-ha has McLaren’s fundamental shortfall of pace to Ferrari been overlooked?

And is it anything that can be redressed without moving towards Ferrari’s long wheelbase approach, which apparently favours transient aerodynamics over outright downforce?

McLaren will be hoping not and may have scored a coup by successfully lobbying against the movable floor technology that Ferrari (and other close rivals BMW) had apparently done a better job of implementing.

With aerodynamics improvements arriving on the car, an ever-improving understanding of the Bridgestone tyres, and two highly motivated drivers, McLaren will be looking to take the fight to Ferrari at Sepang.

Ferrari

Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari was up to a second faster than anything else at Melbourne. Yes, the Albert Park circuit is not typical of the majority of the circuits on the calendar, but pre-race testing at Sepang shows the Scuderia still have a healthy advantage.

Their rivals can take solace from three points: The new restrictions on movable floors, the apparent damage to Raikkonen’s engine during the Australian race, and the heat of Malaysia.

The latter may afflict Ferrari more than other teams as Felipe Massa was visibly unable to run in the hot wake of Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault in the closing stages at Melbourne. The scorching heat of Sepang is likely to expose any weakness of that kind mercilessly, and may even impel Ferrari to run lighter tanks and softer tyres in qualifying to keep ahead of the chasing pack.

Renault

Heikki Kovalainen, Renault, Melbourne, 2007, 3If the reigning champions’ heads dropped at their failure to win the first round of the year for a third consecutive season, the Sepang test brought them good cheer. Pat Symonds spoke of a major breakthrough in their understanding of the Bridgestone product, and Heikki Kovalainen, whose debut at Albert Park was fraught, topped the times.

The world champions could well be back on form at Sepang, taking the fight to BMW, McLaren – and even Ferrari.

Honda

After a miserable start to the season the only way is up for Honda – thought Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello know it will take small, painful steps to begin with.

The team have some substantial aerodynamic revisions but the drivers do not expect the car’s fundamental imbalance to be cured.

BMW

Melbourne showed that BMW have produced a fundamentally effective car, even if they haven’t quite shaken all the gremlins out of it yet – and the gearbox in particular.

It will be interesting to see if they pursue with some of their odder strategies from Melbourne. Nick Heidfeld started on the softer compound tyres, as he is kinder to them than Robert Kubica, but it seemed to do the German no favours. Nor did Kubica seem to benefit from being sidelined on Friday in place of Sebastian Vettel.

Toyota

Ralf Schumacher, Melbourne, Toyota, 2007Toyota perhaps did better than was expected of them at Melbourne following an unconvincing off-season. But nonetheless they finished behind a Toyota-powered Williams, scored only one point and wouldn’t even have gotten that but for Kubica’s retirement.

This inscrutable team are still hunting for the magic ingredient that will transform them back into the front-of-midfield runners they were in 2005. At some point someone will have to admit that perhaps his name was Gascoyne and he works for Spyker now…

Red Bull-Renault

For all the heartache with Adrian Newey’s troublesome RB3 Mark Webber vindicated the design by qualifying within the top ten at Melbourne – miles ahead of his team mate/s.

Eliciting a competitive race performance from the car was made all the more tricky by the persistence of faults as niggling as a fuel filler cap that refused to close. The heat and stresses of Sepang will be quite a challenge for the still flaky car.

Williams-Toyota

Williams began the year brightly with seventh place and a handsome two points at Melbourne – and there could have been more but for David Coulthard’s kamikaze move on Alexander Wurz.

The car seems to be a solid midfield runner but the team must stockpile the points in this early part of the season lest they cannot hack the development pace against their better-funded rivals.

After a bruising 2006 Nico Rosberg seems to have his confidence back – witness his mighty pass on Ralf Schumacher two weekends ago. But the team need to qualify better this time around.

Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari

Having taken later delivery of the RB3 (sorry… ‘STR02′) than Red Bull, Toro Rosso suffered from an even shorter amount of time to familiarise themselves with the car.

Doubtless the two teams are pooling their knowledge between them but the major point of difference between the two teams – engines – may cause Toro Rosso to come unstuck. The particularities of the Ferrari engine’s cooling demands are causing the front-running team enough troubles, never mind the minnows who have slotted the unit into a non-bespoke chassis.

Vitantonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed will continue their internecine battle that is yet to provide conclusive evidence that either truly deserves a competitive F1 seat.

Spyker-Ferrari

Adrian Sutil, Lewis Hamilton, Melbourne, 2007Despite having established themselves as the new Minardi, Spyker seem resolutely upbeat. New designer Mike Gascoyne has publicly admitted the car’s shortcomings but has new parts ready for Sepang and has one eye on a complete overhaul later in the season.

The drivers will be hoping it proves enough to keep them in sight of the tail enders. Meanwhile Christijan Albers needs to bounce back from an embarrassing DNF at Melbourne and get his young team mate in check.

Super Aguri-Honda

Depending on your point of view Super Aguri are either cheeky young upstarts or malevolent rule breakers whose repainted Honda RA106 has sprung open a Pandora’s box for the F1 rule makers.

Anthony Davidson must have been enormously frustrated by his ‘proper’ F1 debut. Luckily for him he has had three weeks to recover from his back problems ahead of one of the most physically demanding races of the year.

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1 comment on Malaysian Grand Prix 2007 preview

  1. Journeyer said on 3rd April 2007, 9:40

    If there’s one thing I’m sure of, Ferrari is doing a rain dance right now. Why so? The weathermen say there’s a good chance of rain. With everyone running on Bridgestones, it will be down to driver skill more than tyre grip (good for Kimi, but Alonso will be right up there too). More importantly though, the engines won’t be pushed as hard (as drivers will have to be a bit more careful in the wet), so it won’t get as hot. The cooler temperatures would certainly also help the engine. If Ferrari DO have problems with this engine spec, the rain may help them get away with it… at least for a week, when they get their new engines in Bahrain.

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