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

  1. Hare (@hare) said on 9th April 2011, 20:39

    McLaren, are my favourites for the season. They have been since the U sidepods were unveiled, but that was based on nothing more than hope rewarding innovation.

    However, since the Octopus EBD came to light, and their results in AUS, it’s clear McLaren’s car is inherently fast, and they have perhaps the widest scope of any team for improvement, as they’ve built their car with a number of innovations in mind.

    Seems those sidepods give a decent performance hike, thus allowing much more room for testing, and stepped improvements than perhaps the likes of Red Bull.

    • mateuss (@mateuss) said on 9th April 2011, 21:42

      Ever since I saw the car in Aus, I have thought that the U-shaped sidepods have payed off for them, big time! RBR no doubt have the best rear of the rear end, and yet McLaren are right with them.

      Looks like McLaren are able to run very steep front wing angle on the inside of the front wing, which produces more front downforce, and that air is then channeled trough the sidepod cut outs, where it would produce higher pressure at the top of the sidepod(hence downforce) and then the same air helps to increase the air mass over the diffuser and more directly it would help the rear brake-duct furniture and the beam wing effectives.

      If any other team with the conventional sidepods would increase the angle on the inside of the front wing, then, apart from increasing front downforce, it would do nothing but create more drag, as the high pressure air stream would hit the sidepod opening.

      At the moment there is no denying the fact that RBR have the best front wing, because of the flex, which other teams have not been able to crack, even though they had time since the middle of last season, so who knows when other teams will finally crack that one? And most likely they have the best RBD, which should be more copyable.

      Overall I fell that the McLaren concept has more potential than RBR, so we could be in for a season like Turkey race last year, but we are just guessing at this point (and all the other ones as well all trough the season :D).

      • Hare (@hare) said on 9th April 2011, 21:46

        re 1st four paragraphs. Yes, what you said! ;)

        I feel the same re potential. It’s gonna be a good seasons. Especially when the diffuser they bolted on looks like a shovel. :)

  2. patrickl said on 9th April 2011, 20:39

    Last year, Hamilton was right up there with the Red Bulls in every practise. Maybe the track just suits the car or Hamilton? We all know how far Red Bull was ahead on almost all the other tracks though.

  3. DaveW said on 9th April 2011, 20:43

    Key will be easing up to the cliff in stint 1. If you can glide down the tire performance curve, losing less than 3 seconds per lap in performance from lap 10 to about 13-15, you can forgo a stop and come out ahead for the effort. Button, as those behind him are slower and harder on their tires, may be in a good position. Hamilton won’t be in a position to pace himself, with Webber breathing down his back. If Button can do an easy first few laps, practice data seem to show that this will allow his tires to run out longer.

    • Oliver said on 9th April 2011, 21:22

      This is exactly the reason why Button was able to finish consistently in the higher points positions all of last year. If he was battling for the lead he wouldn’t have the option to pace himself.

  4. patrickl said on 9th April 2011, 20:44

    I see people suggesting that saving a pitstop is the holy grail, but I don’t think saving a pitstop makes much difference in overall race time.

    Alonso lost 24 seconds before he made his first stop. That was because of him being pushed off in the first corner.

    After that he could do his own race and he lost only 6 extra seconds to Vettel. That’s including making one stop extra.

    With a better (normal) start he would have been pretty competitive even making a stop more.

    • Oliver said on 9th April 2011, 21:28

      It all depends on how quickly the tyes show a significant drop off in performance. If a steady drive reduces the drop off, then teams will pursue fewer stops. However, if the tyres show a drop in performance regardless of how they are managed, then the teams will be forced to make more stops. Your running position also plays a part.

      • Patrickl said on 10th April 2011, 8:30

        The point is that the last race showed that there isn’t much between the two strategies.

        If anything, I’d say Alonso was faster doing 3 stops than you’d expect him to be seeing his huge deficit in Q3

  5. F1Fan said on 9th April 2011, 20:58

    Assuming a 3-stop race, we are looking at 4 stints. The first stint is said to be around 9-10 laps on the soft tire. This would leave 3 stints for the other 46-47 laps. If somebody can make the hard tire last 18 laps, he can use the soft again for the final stint, so something like 10-18-18-10, going S-H-H-S. Otherwise it would be more like a 10-16-15-15, going S-H-H-H. So this means that there are certain variables for the race, and it will all depend on who can use the softs for more than 1 stint. If McLaren were very close in Q, they should also be very close to the RBR in race trim. What we don’t know is how KERS might affect tire wear on the RBR over an entire stint. In Melbourne, Vettel pitted 2 laps earlier than Lewis, on lap 14. When Vettel pitted, Lewis was about 3 sec behind. Of these 3 secs, at least 2 secs were gained during the very first lap (this agrees w/ the commonly accepted theory that RBR can produce an awesome first-lap time on softs). So during the 13 laps following lap 1, Vettel could only increase his lead by about a second. This means Lewis was within 7-8/100s of Vettel on every lap (after lap 1), as an average. Additionally, Lewis made a bad start, which I don’t think he will do again here. The pole position place has been moved to the inside, which may complicate the start. If it doesn’t rain, it will be a thrilling battle between these two for the win. Keith and F1.com suggest that the RBR has the pace advantage over a stint, but we don’t know what fuel loads were used during these runs. Also, the runs from which the data was presented were much different in duration. Lewis went 6 laps, the RBRs 10 or 11 laps. If I had to pick the winner I would go w/ Lewis, since the McLaren seems evenly matched w/ the RBR on this track, their KERS is better and we don’t know how RBR’s KERS might affect their tire wear. Even if Lewis cannot overtake Vettel at the start, I think he will be right behind him all the way to the very end, and w/ a chance to overtake.

    • Oliver said on 9th April 2011, 21:33

      So long as he, Hamilton, doesn’t forget to warm up his tyres during the parade lap and start on a colder set of tyres relative to the cars around him. My guess is his race engineers were busy chatting with him over the radio as they jus t love to do at odd times.

    • Enigma (@enigma) said on 9th April 2011, 21:39

      Don’t forget about fuel load – tyres last much longer later on in the race, so if they last 10 laps at the start (after being used in qualy) then you’re probably looking at more than 20 laps at the end of the race on new softs.

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 10th April 2011, 7:23

        Exactly, from what was said by the teams after Australia and FP I expect everyone to go for something like S-S-S-H or maybe put on the hards earlier if they feel they might be able to save 1 pitstop.

        The new tyres can be kept good if the outlap is done carfully and going quite slow. Then the softs are better, as there does not seem to be too much difference in durability between soft and hard, but a big speed difference.

  6. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 9th April 2011, 21:03

    Agree with the article on the tyres, it will help to compound some suspicions about the tyres as well as educate us further.

    Tomorrow really could throw up alot of anomalies. It’s very much a polarisation of Melbourne, much hotter, humid, likely to rain, a ‘proper’ circuit and of course it’s got two enormous straights.

    Cannot wait!

  7. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 9th April 2011, 21:04

    Keith, just noticed this little error…

    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.

  8. Enigma (@enigma) said on 9th April 2011, 21:18

    The race looks set to be another one like Turkey last year, which was arguably the best race of the season. Red Bulls the best in qualifying with McLaren (probably) better on race pace and tyre management.

    Vettel and Hamilton touched a couple of times last year into turn 1 (Valencia, Silverstone, close in Abu Dhabi), and with both being very aggressive we may see a great duel. I just hope it won’t be too easy for Hamilton to overtake with better KERS and with DRS.

    Webber will be eager to beat his team-mate for the first time since august, and he has a shot at Sepang, as it’s a track he’s good at, and he’s looked reasonably quick this weekend so far. Button might be in there too with his good strategic calls and tyre saving management. And he won two wet races last year. So it’s looking like a four-way battle for the win, which would be just incredible.

    And there’s the weather. 60-80% chance of showers at race time, which could make a complete chaos. We have Alonso and Heidfeld on row 3. Be sure that the former will take advantage of every opportunity to gain a place, and the later, with his consistency, safe hands and good strategic decisions, might get on the podium just like he did in 2009. And there’s Massa, who’s had some awesome starts lately and will probably challenge on the opening laps.

    The four-way battle will be hugely dependent on the strategy as well (at which McLaren is usually better, specially in tricky conditions), and if it’s dry we’ll probably see some variation, which can only be good.

    I hope for drying track at the start and rain in the last laps. We all know how epic that was in Spa in 2008.

    I’ve gone through many scenarios of the race in my head, but with so many variables and unknowns, I just can’t see this race not being a cracker. It might just be a classic.

    • damonsmedley (@damonsmedley) said on 10th April 2011, 8:20

      That was like an article in response to an article! But I agree with you, and you make a few good points. I am really, really excited for this. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint us like Melbourne. :)

  9. wigster (@wigster) said on 9th April 2011, 21:29

    In the unlikey event it stays dry all race then I’m predicting it’ll be between Vettel and Hamilton, who though depends on tyre wear since they both appear to be very even on pace.

    If its wet from the start then Hamilton has the edge I think as his car has more downforce then then the Red Bulls, I remember he had laps on full wets at barca in testing which may help, and i think hes generally better in the wet then Vettel. Plus if it starts wet he’ll possibly be able to control things and react to cars behind changing tyres.

    Finally, if it starts dry then rains then its entirely down to luck. Unless, that is the Mclarens and or Red Bulls can build a pit stops lead over the others in case it starts to rain soon after a pit stop.

    • Nick F said on 10th April 2011, 7:24

      Vettel is good in the wet too. After all he won Monza in a Toro Rosso.

      We don’t know how the Mclaren and Red Bull handle in the wet yet so it’s hard to predict the result. It may be that one has a particular advantage because it treats it’s tyres just right for that scenario.

  10. marsianwalrus (@einariliyev) said on 9th April 2011, 21:54

    If they finish as it stands, I’ll get a perfect score on F1fanatic predictions championship :) But I still hope, as a true f1 fanatic, that we have a thrilling, year-defining, chaotic, witty race with the best man winning.

  11. Paul A said on 9th April 2011, 22:38

    Someone wrote about a “four-way battle” forgetting that it’s highly likely there will be some attrition among the four “favourites” – new KERS, rain, first corner fender-bender, whatever – and put one or two of them out or so far back they’re no longer in contention.
    In which case Alonso’s prediction that he’ll be on the podium could well come about … particularly if Button’s strategy (already suggested here) of saving tyres at the start to have one pit stop less allows the Ferrari to swoop early.
    But, then again my crystal ball gazing powers are limited. Still looking forward to 4 a.m. tomorrow.

  12. maxthecat said on 9th April 2011, 23:01

    If McLaren’s pace carries over to the race i see a Hamilton win, Button 2nd and Petrov with another 3rd. I have a feeling the Red Bulls won’t last the distance.

  13. BROOKSY007 (@brooksy007) said on 9th April 2011, 23:13

    Just a few questions for everyone.

    Apart from kers, are the engines the same from last year? Or have they been allowed to modify them to gain extra power or better fuel consumption?

    Is redbull still using extra exhaust to blow their floor like they did last year for qualifying runs? Have other teams copied this?

    Keith if you would also like to comment tHat would be great!

    • Dave said on 10th April 2011, 1:43

      Red Bull never ran extra exhausts, F1 only allows for two exhausts. Diffusers are no longer directly blown which is what I think you meant. Teams have this year started blowing the floor aka Renault and what Mclaren where attempting.

      Engines are frozen until the change in 2013 but I’m sure teams have worked their way round the restrictions which no pundit can answer.

      I know I’m not Keith and my knowledge pales in comparison but I hope that answers your questions,

      • Patrickl said on 10th April 2011, 8:35

        I think he doesn’t mean extra exhaust, but that they produced extra exhaust fumes to keep blowing the diffuser even when the driver was not on the throttle.

        A much overhyped bit of speculation at the time.

        Red Bull and Ferrari still have a blown diffuser. The outside 5 cm of the floor can still have a gap in it. That’s where they blow the diffuser now.

  14. timi said on 9th April 2011, 23:40

    a mclaren to win. red bull second
    will be a banging race!

  15. Matt (@superf1fan) said on 10th April 2011, 0:52

    Not trying to spoil the party but if it rains like it does fairly often in Sepang it will almost certainly be red flagged. I love seeing changeable conditions as much as the next man, however what is the point of going to race somewhere at a time when there will be an 80% chance of a red flag before the race has even started?

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