Sepang may prove 2011 will be closer than expected

2011 Malaysian GP pre-race analysis

Mark Webber, Pastor Maldonado, Sepang, 2011

Mark Webber, Pastor Maldonado, Sepang, 2011

Sebastian Vettel’s crushing display in the Australian Grand Prix raised the prospect of a season dominated by Red Bull.

But after a close qualifying session between them and McLaren we may look forward to a similarly exciting race.

The start

The run to the first corner at Sepang is 460m – over twice as far as it was at Melbourne. This makes getting a good start and deploying KERS all the more important.

Unusually, in the last two years the driver leading at the end of lap one in Sepang hadn’t started on the front row.

Last year Vettel got a clean getaway from third and pinched the lead from his pole-sitting team mate at the first corner. No doubt Mark Webber would like to return the favour this year as they start in the reverse of the 2010 positions.

Christian Horner said Red Bull are using KERS on their cars this weekend, unlike in Melbourne. Sure enough, their straight-line speeds in qualifying were higher – in fact both Vettel and Webber were quicker than Hamilton at the speed trap. That removes a potential vulnerability from the RB7s at the start.

But this is the first time Red Bull have run KERS in a race. Reliability has been a problem for most teams using KERS at one stage or another.

Although KERS failures tend not to cause outright retirement, it is obviously a disadvantage if the system packs in and leaves the driver lugging around a battery and motor for no benefit.

There’s more to getting a good start than just KERS – witness Lewis Hamilton’s poor getaway in Melbourne. The decision to change which side of the grid pole position is on could also play a role here.

Unlike in previous years Vettel’s pole position slot is on the right-hand side. The left-hand side is further off-line and will potentially have more rubber debris on it.

Some oil was dropped in a support race near where the Hamilton will start from, but the Malaysian marshals have been busy cleaning it up.

Sepang’s wide corners and long straight invite first-lap lunges for position, so expect to see some big moves at the start.

Strategy

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Sepang, 2011

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Sepang, 2011

Pirelli have said they expect drivers to need three pit stops at Sepang and that has been supported by what we’ve seen in practice so far.

None of the drivers in the top ten chose to qualify on the hard tyre, meaning they’ll all start on softs (assuming it’s a dry race). As ever, keep your eyes peeled when the formation lap begins to see which drivers starting 11th and lower have opted for hard tyres.

This was the strategy Sergio Perez found so effective in Melbourne. However it’s doubtful anyone will be able to emulate his feat of doing the whole race on just one stop.

Making one fewer pit stop will save a driver 22 seconds. Drivers making three stops will make their first visits to the pits after about ten laps – anyone who can eke their tyres out half-a-dozen laps or so longer should be able to do two.

In Melbourne we saw some teams and drivers had to make more stops than others – both Ferraris and Mark Webber stopped three times while many of their rivals did just two. Sepang could give us more of an insight into which cars and drivers manage their tyres best.

Red Bull in particular were paying attention to their rear tyre wear during practice – something which will not have been improved by the addition of KERS.

The weather

Before the race weekend started Sunday looked like the best prospect for some rain and that is still the case. Different forecasts are predicting 60% or greater chance of rain.

The performance of Pirelli’s wet and intermediate tyres is a significant unknown. Given the high temperatures which persist at the circuit even during rainfall, wet running here would be a major test of their durability.

The prospect of a wet race inevitably brings with it claims that this team or that driver have opted for a ‘wet set-up’. Until the race is done and dusted it’s hard to say, but don’t bank on any teams making concessions that would significantly affect their dry-weather performance unless they were certain rain was going to come.

DRS

Timo Glock, Virgin, Sepang, 2011

Timo Glock, Virgin, Sepang, 2011

Interestingly, Charlie Whiting declared yesterday that drivers may not use the DRS “if the car is fitted with intermediate or wet-weather tyres”.

This could be significant in a scenario where the field is in transition between dry and wet-weather tyres, as those on slicks would be able to use their DRS but those on wet or intermediates wouldn’t.

Of course, the usual restrictions on using DRS in the race would still apply. Drivers can activate their rear wing once they come out of the final corner, providing they were within one second of another car on the approach to it.

As the start/finish straight is over one kilometre long, the DRS effect should be more powerful here than it was in Melbourne. So even if the race stays dry, we may well see more jockeying for position than usual.

Keep an eye on the Mercedes and Force India drivers who had the highest top speeds and have got places to make up at the start. Particularly Michael Schumacher, who was hindered by a DRS problem in qualifying.

Over to you

How do you expect the Malaysian Grand Prix to unfold?

Will McLaren – or anyone else – be able to keep up with Red Bull? And who will fare best if it rains?

Have your say in the comments.

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118 comments on Sepang may prove 2011 will be closer than expected

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  1. magon4 (@magon4) said on 9th April 2011, 18:52

    Button is favorite to win the race. Vettel and Hamilton will battle and waste tyres in the beginning, Button will wait, stay out and win through strategy and trye saving.

    • F1Lover said on 9th April 2011, 19:14

      Do you think Alonso will let Button wait peacefully? Also while waiting, in the same time letting Webber build a gap…

      • magon4 (@magon4) said on 9th April 2011, 19:30

        Even independent of what happens up front I think Button is the best with dealing with tyres, from the top 4. Alonso won’t bother him.

        • Todfod (@todfod) said on 9th April 2011, 22:25

          He might be marginally better than Vettel and Hamilton at looking after his tyres, but he is also a tortoise at heart. If there are normal racing conditions, he will not finish higher than 4th… or 3rd if he is a little lucky.

      • Hare (@hare) said on 9th April 2011, 21:40

        Alonso doesn’t have the car, which when you think about it, is quite critical for a car race. :)

      • Jonathan said on 10th April 2011, 4:30

        You are assuming Alonso can stay with Button. But lap times during quali and practice sessions have proved that the Ferrari is at least a couple tenths slower than the McLaren.

      • Chris (@chris) said on 10th April 2011, 7:02

        Alonso has no car to match the McLaren
        He will a minute away in a couple of laps

        :-)

    • d1sciple (@d1sciple) said on 9th April 2011, 19:44

      Well he isn’t the bookies favourite, even though he may be yours. I think he’ll have a good race, particularly if it rains, although then it is anyone’s race.

      If dry, he can sit back and manage tyres so possibly do one less pit stop. We all know how kind he is on cars and tyres so it is possible.

    • Dipak T said on 9th April 2011, 22:56

      You ignoring the fact that he mustnot give away 22 secs to the leaders over the race in order to make that work – which Button can do, he can drive at blistering speed and keep the tyres.

      However, the drop off isnt a tyre balance issue that varies from driver to driver. Its a given, an absolute certainty. No matter what you do, by lap X they are gone. Which means that when they do go off you want to be as far down the road as you possibly can, without misusing the tyres, meaning the ball is in Hamilton, Vettels and Alonsos court there.

      If these were Michelins, Button would be long gone I suspect, but they are not and so he is slightly behind.

  2. walster said on 9th April 2011, 18:55

    Once again awesome reporting Keith. Love your site and the twitter apps. Anyhow, first I heard of Mr. Schumachers qualifying issue. Can anyone expand on this?

    • RIISE (@riise) said on 9th April 2011, 18:59

      Yeah this would perfectly explain being 6 tenths off Rosberg. He’s had problems with that most of the weekend.

      • bananarama (@bananarama) said on 9th April 2011, 19:17

        Schumacher said himself on TV that his DRS didn’t go back to neutral for the last corner, so his breaking point was way off, grip in the corner was really bad and he could accelerate later. I haven’t seen footage on it though, but if he is right, then this incident sure cost him a lot of time, his sectors before that were better than Heidfelds if I remember that correctly.

  3. Rod (@rod) said on 9th April 2011, 18:57

    Pedantry corner Keith: As the start/finish straight is over one kilometre long, the DRS effect should be more powerful here than it was in Sepang. So even if the race stays dry, we may well see more jockeying for position than usual.

    This is Sepang, no?

  4. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 9th April 2011, 19:01

    So hard to predict. I think Red Bull’s biggest worry will be tyre wear and then KERS reliability.

    Depending on how many outside the Top 10 start on hard tyres, we might see the front 4 coming out of the pits and having to contend with the backmarkers.

    Then there’s the timing of the rain. If it starts wet, everyone will be in the same boat and the front 4 won’t have to worry about pitting 6 laps earlier than backmarkers. It it rains early enough, the front 4 might have the advantage, or it might start raining when those on the softs and those on the hards are out of sequence with their stops, which will really mix things up.

    Then there’s variable strategies. Will they go soft, soft, soft, hard? Soft, soft, hard? Soft, hard, soft?

    I think the winner will be the guy who sticks to his own plan and doesn’t get frightened into compromising their own strategy because someone else came in for tyres.

  5. driftin said on 9th April 2011, 19:02

    The Hamilton? Is that some sort of superhero name?

  6. F1Lover said on 9th April 2011, 19:09

    Keith, is Vettel and Webber were quicker at the speed trap how come the maccas were quicker in sector 3?

  7. Larcem (@larcem) said on 9th April 2011, 19:09

    just correct this on the DRS paragraph: “As the start/finish straight is over one kilometre long, the DRS effect should be more powerful here than it was in Sepang” should Melbourne, no?

  8. sukoco said on 9th April 2011, 19:21

    but qualifying gap is to big from 1-10 n .. bit disappointed caused there aren’t surprise from torrotoso forceindia lotus or virgin.. same old train from last year

  9. James said on 9th April 2011, 19:33

    The bloke that has been providing weather updates via twitter since last season, Ian Fergueson seems to think that the race has an 80+% chance of it being affected (effected?) by wet weather. He hasnt been far from wrong in the past.

    This is his profile: http://twitter.com/fergieweather

  10. d1sciple (@d1sciple) said on 9th April 2011, 19:34

    The lack of pace on the Williams suggests they may have compromised for a wet race, otherwise their lack of pace is really quite poor!

    • tata said on 9th April 2011, 21:14

      and ferrari,they expect a 80% probability of rain during the race. just don’t forget the car performance in race trim seems to be at least as good as the redbull ,i think they have a setup for rain.
      ferrari will win.

      • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 9th April 2011, 21:19

        just don’t forget the car performance in race trim seems to be at least as good as the redbull

        In Australia they needed an extra pit stop and finished half a minute behind. How is that “at least as good”?

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 10th April 2011, 7:10

        Nice to see you not lose faith in Ferrari. But I am very certain Alonso would have preferred having a shot at second row over a rain prepared setup.
        If only their car was up to it. Don’t count on it, Ferrari were clearly slower than both Red Bull (big time) and McLaren in Australia.

        Testing counts for nothing, when these teams have improved from there on and Renault is right up there with Ferrari on speed.

  11. David BR said on 9th April 2011, 19:36

    I’m expecting a feisty first corner. If Vettel doesn’t get away cleanly, I’m sure he’ll be put under heavy pressure from other drivers, keen to ensure he doesn’t have an easy run to another win. Also Kobayashi in 10th looks ominous. If it’s dry: McLaren to end up in 1 and 2 as Red Bull’s performance trails off during the race. If it’s rain: Hamilton followed by mayhem.

    • d1sciple (@d1sciple) said on 9th April 2011, 19:48

      I don’t think the first corner is as important her as the last few (10) seasons. There is more ability to overtake here and the pace of the McLaren’s seems good. on long runs. Webber getting 2nd off the start is the worst result for a competitive race in the dry.

      • David BR said on 9th April 2011, 20:44

        I get your point that grid position isn’t so important, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a fight into the first corner. What I meant was that the threat is for Vettel to head off into the sunset (bar McLaren really equaling or bettering Red Bull) so, although any scrap is risky, the other drivers are likely to get more aggressive in chasing him, especially knowing that he’s less effective if he drops down a few positions from the start. Maybe just wishful thinking!

        • d1sciple (@d1sciple) said on 9th April 2011, 21:52

          Well the big scrap will be to make sure a McLaren is at worst in second place, then we will see the true pace. So a first corner scrap with Webber is possible, especially after his faux pas last year!

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 10th April 2011, 7:11

        But changing the pole from left side to right side will have an effect on that. It would make pole better.

    • S.J.M (@sjm) said on 9th April 2011, 20:05

      Something occured to me. This is the first KERs run race for Redbull, so it stands to reason this is the first start Webber & Vettel have using it. We saw in Melbourne how much spin from his tyres that Lewis produced, and hes had a whole season using KERs at the start, Have Vettel and Webber had any pratice in this at all?. Its possible that this experience (and for others) could prove vital to the start, if not the race.

      Maybe im just being over-analytical.

      • patrickl said on 9th April 2011, 20:36

        They don’t use KERS off the line

      • Becken said on 9th April 2011, 21:29

        We saw in Melbourne how much spin from his tyres that Lewis produced, and hes had a whole season using KERs at the start, Have Vettel and Webber had any pratice in this at all?. Its possible that this experience (and for others) could prove vital to the start, if not the race.

        KERS can be used only from 3th gear onwards.

      • Enigma (@enigma) said on 9th April 2011, 21:33

        As patrickl said, they’re not using it when they’re traction limited. So the only new thing for Red Bull is they have to know when they’re no longer limited on traction and press the KERS button. So Hamilton’s experience is pretty much worthless here.

  12. verstappen said on 9th April 2011, 20:25

    It’s a relief to read here that Schumi had a problem with the DRS, however it could be a dangerous one during the race.

    • James said on 9th April 2011, 20:30

      Good point. The FIA say that if a problem develops with the DRS, then the wing will slam shut. But what happens in the event that the wing is jammed open? Does the driver get a black and orange flag, or even black flagged?

    • Damon said on 9th April 2011, 23:00

      So did rosberg

      • Dan12 said on 9th April 2011, 23:16

        Rosberg got DRS problem in Q3 not in Q2.

        • BasCB (@bascb) said on 10th April 2011, 7:14

          Really? Maybe its got something to do with Mercedes being the only one (one of the few?) who operates the DRS from the sides instead of having a central lever.

          Certainly seems there are some problems with it, that will cause some headaches both at the FIA and at Mercedes.

  13. Hatebreeder said on 9th April 2011, 20:25

    if it rains before the race starts, then it will wash the track entirely and no one has an advantage! awesome!

  14. verstappen said on 9th April 2011, 20:31

    I hope Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault also will get in the mix later in the year. Although for starters it is nice to see McLaren having cought up.

    I think(hope) this season will become even more epic than last!

  15. DaveW said on 9th April 2011, 20:39

    Keith, Isn’t the wet weather rule that no one can use DRS if any car is on wets or inters, to avoid the situation you cite? I thought this is what Matchett explained in the Melbourne broadcast.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 9th April 2011, 20:43

      Here’s what the FIA document says:

      As discussed in the team managers meeting yesterday, I would like to confirm that for safety reasons the driver adjustable bodywork permitted by Article 3.18 of the Technical Regulations may not be operated in any practice session (including qualifying) if the car is fitted with intermediate or wet-weather tyres.

      Any driver using the adjustable bodywork whilst the car is fitted with intermediate or wet-weather tyres will be reported to the stewards as being in breach of Article 2.3 of the Technical Regulations (dangerous construction).

      • Oliver said on 9th April 2011, 21:15

        Does this mean if the track is wet but the drivers are still on slicks then they can use the DRS? Because it seems the drivers may still be getting the signal to use te DRS but will have to remember what tyre they are running on.

        • Enigma (@enigma) said on 9th April 2011, 21:36

          Saying whether the track is dry or wet could be biased, so it’s only based on tyres you’re using. So even if it’s raining like at the end of 2009 race, if you’re on slicks, you may use DRS!

        • BasCB (@bascb) said on 10th April 2011, 7:18

          I suppose they might, but at their own risk.

          My guess is the logic behind this being, that if you find its nessicary to run wet weather tyres, you are experiencing problems with grip. Therefore lessening your grip would go against that and even worsen your situation.

          If you are still running slicks, you would be feeling secure you can make it. Using DRS might be an option, at your own risk. Or its just driving on eggscales back to the pits, making even further lessening downforce downright foolhardy and highly unlikely as it worsens your chances of making it to the pits.

      • Mouse_Nightshirt said on 9th April 2011, 21:34

        That rule says practice or qualifying, which means, I assume, you can use it in the race?

        • DaveW said on 9th April 2011, 22:58

          Thanks to Keith for looking it up. But it does leave this question. In the race, as the only time the DRS is useable is in the official zone, a straight, there is not the issue of safety where a driver will be tempted to use it in a corner. It would be unfair for a driver on inters in mixed conditions to be barred from using the DRS against a driver on slicks. In fact the safety justification would dictate the opposite, because the guy on slicks is the one taking the big risk in a situation where some are on wets/inters.

      • HounslowBusGarage said on 9th April 2011, 21:42

        “Any driver using the adjustable bodywork whilst the car is fitted with intermediate or wet-weather tyres will be reported to the stewards”
        What an ****ing sily bog-up this is! So the drivers will have that lovely glowing switch in front of them that says “Press me and pass the bloke in front!” But they will have to say to themselves “Wait a minure, what tyres am I on?” Otherwise they get reported to the School Prefects.
        This is a pretty poor policing arrangement even by FIA standards

        • Mark said on 10th April 2011, 0:07

          I’m pretty sure the drivers know what tyre they are on at all times. Did you see Nico’s training??

      • wigster (@wigster) said on 9th April 2011, 23:35

        Doesn’t that only mention practice though, not the race?

        I’m sure i’ve read/heard somewhere that if ANY car is on wets/inters then everyones DRS is disabled. Would’t it make more sense though to leave it up to the drivers during the race to decide if its safe to use DRS? They’re in a better position to work out how much grip they’ve got then the FIA.

        Also, just how is using DRS on wet tyres “dangerous construction”? surely the tyres dont change the construction of the car from safe to unsafe.

        • Enigma (@enigma) said on 10th April 2011, 7:03

          If that was the rule we would see Heidfeld going on inters in Melbourne, just to make sure Petrov kept the podium. So such rule would be just stupid.

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