Malaysian F1 GP: Red Bull’s race to lose

8 April 2011

Written by: Khairun Hamid

After Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel blew the field away at the first round of the 2011 F1 season in Australia, this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix might throw up a surprise or two.

The Sepang circuit has a history of unpredictable weather, and this year looks to be the same with thunderstorms forecast for the weekend. This could be the first real test for the new cars and Pirelli tyres in the wet, and will determine who has the upper hand in terms of speed.

Vettel reaffirmed his status as the man to beat at Albert Park, leading from start to finish in what was a clinical display. Lewis Hamiton came second, but both performances were arguably overshadowed by the amazing run of Lotus-Renault’s Vitaly Petrov. The Russian driver took advantage of a brilliant first lap from eighth on the grid to finish third and secure the first podium finish of his young career.

Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber, Hamilton’s MacLaren counterpart and 2009 Malaysian GP winner Jenson Button and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso all put in relatively poor performances in Australia and will be aiming to put their championship credentials on display this weekend. Webber, who had pole position in Malaysia last year, said in a press conference earlier this week that he is aiming for a spot on the podium.

The weather will play a key role in determining the outcome of this race. Every team is entering uncharted territory by racing in the wet with the new Pirelli tyres and the Drag Reduction System. With monsoonal rain forecast for race day, the use of tyres will be the main challenge for drivers and teams. The new Pirelli rain tyres were tested in torrential conditions at Catalunya earlier this year, but have not done a lot of running of the ‘intermediate’ variety.

Strategy will also be critical to the race result, as teams have to decide what tyres to start on, or change to, depending on when the rain comes. Of course, the rain can become dangerous and force the stewards to stop the race. In 2009, the race was red-flagged as it rained so much the water was flowing across the track, rendering it undrivable.

The battle for the rest of the points, however, is just as intense as the battle up the front of the field. Admirable performances from drivers such as Sergio Perez – who seemed to have secured his first world championship points on debut before his Sauber team was disqualified following a post-race investigation – the aforementioned Petrov and Force India driver Paul Di Resta, who scored his first point thanks to the demise of Sauber, will be great to watch. The emergence of these young drivers as point-scoring threats leaves the midfield tussle for the points-paying positions wide open.

The Mercedes pairing of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher are treating this as a second home race due to their sponsorship from Malaysian petrol empire Petronas. Rosberg finished third after qualifying second last year and should put in another strong performance in this year’s edition of the race.

The predicted rain means this race could potentially go to anyone that makes the finish line. Button and Webber have been extremely quick in the wet over recent years, but Hamilton and Vettel look to have the edge over the rest of the field for raw pace, based on their performances in Australia.

However Vettel and Webber should be able to exploit their cars’ speed advantage and unless MacLaren can make some drastic improvements to the setup of their car, it’s shaping up to be the Red Bull team’s race to lose.

Joel Peterson is a first-year student in the Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) at La Trobe University.