Mark Webber, Pastor Maldonado, Sepang, 2011

Sepang may prove 2011 will be closer than expected

2011 Malaysian GP pre-race analysisPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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.


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.


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. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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. :)

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Yeah, he likes a wet kinky kylie.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

    1. 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,

      1. 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.

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

  10. Matt (@superf1fan)
    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?

    1. that’s a good point. i hope that doesn’t happen. it would be a major anti climax.

  11. Enjoy the race

  12. Too close to call but to me Vettel, Webber & Hamilton the top 3 not sure in which order. But the race will be a exciting one indeed.

  13. Looks like they moved the pole sitter starting position from outside to inside the track.

    So, HAM and BUT are okay and WEB may be in trouble?

    1. They moved the pole position on the better side of the grid, so Webber in 3rd should have an advantage because of this.

    2. and then a rain storm cleaned the track …

  14. Well’s been wet since morning!

  15. Hope it doesn’t come to a safety car start, that would kill half the excitement of this race. Even so, I think a McLaren will win the race, most probably Hamilton. Lewis is the best overtaker out there, especially when it’s wet, and I doubt if the Red Bull can make an impact once it is overtaken. The RB7 isn’t the quickest on the straights, and it wont enjoy the same front end downforce in the wake of another car.

    That said, Sebastian did fewer laps in Q3 than all those around him, so he may have better tyres if we have a couple of dry stints.

    1. Keith’s article says that the Red Bulls have a higher straight line speed than the Mclarens with the setup they chose.

      1. Higher than Hamilton, not Button.

  16. I’ll tell you what, even though the place looked pretty deserted during qualifying, unlike certain races in the sand and elsewhere,to me the track/venue looks pretty darn good on TV.
    I reckon something that’s visually appealing will attract more new viewers than something that’s not.
    Anyhoo, getting excited, just over 90 minutes to go, reckon this could be a good one wet or dry.

    1. It’s pouring cats and dogs here in Kuala Lumpur!

  17. Ouch,you wearing a helmet? :)

  18. Very neat blog article. Much thanks. Awesome.

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