There are many talking points around the Formula 1 paddock ahead of this weekend’s second round of the season in Sepang, Malaysia. Last weekend’s curtain-raiser in Melbourne provided F1 fans with a couple of surprises – McLaren out-qualifying Red Bull caught most casual fans by surprise, while the struggles of Ferrari have heaped more pressure on Stefano Domenicali and his technical team. So what should we be looking out for as the teams prepare to go racing again?
1) How does McLaren’s car hold up on a different circuit?
There was some speculation around the pitlane last weekend that McLaren’s superiority at Melbourne may not be an indicator of a dominant season to come. The comments provoked responses from Silver Arrows chiefs that they were confident, given the cars’ all-round performance on the multi-faceted Barcelona circuit during pre-season testing, that McLaren would be competitive on all types of circuit this season – unlike their patchy form of 2011.
Predictably, the usual mind-games have opened up among the drivers – Sebastian Vettel has reportedly conceded that McLaren currently have the upper hand on his Red Bull team, while Melbourne race winner Jenson Button has described the team’s supremacy in Australia as “a huge relief” but “incredibly motivating” for the rest of the season.
The Friday test sessions will give us a greater idea of which driver is right, but for now McLaren will be more than happy for their rivals to assume their performance in Melbourne can’t be replicated in Sepang.
2) Was Ferrari’s failure in Melbourne just a one-off?
According to Fernando Alonso, no. And that’s a problem. Alonso drove a typically solid race to pick up fifth place in Melbourne, but it seems that for the second season running the Prancing Horse is destined to shy into the background behind a McLaren-Red Bull title fight.
“In Malaysia, we will once again be racing on the defensive,” Alonso told AUTOSPORT.com. What he doesn’t mention is that, while their race pace didn’t set the world alight, Ferrari’s problems in Australia were caused by their poor qualifying – specifically, by Alonso’s detour into the gravel during second qualifying.
Felipe Massa continues to struggle for pace and it is becoming ever more urgent for Ferrari to see productivity from the Brazilian. The team are so desperate to help out the 29-year-old that a brand new chassis has been sent to Sepang to see whether Massa’s “unusual performance” – or lack of performance – was down to machine rather than man.
3) Which of the midfield teams will sneak the final points places?
Sauber’s double-points finish in Melbourne has them ahead of not only Ferrari, but also midfield rivals Lotus-Renault, Force India and Toro Rosso after one round of the championship, and the Swiss outfit were understandably delighted to see Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez hold out for points under constant pressure last weekend.
Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado were less lucky, though. Making his first F1 appearance in three years, Grosjean qualified spectacularly well in third place and was running strongly until a collision with Maldonado – who is a magnet for such controversy – broke his suspension. Maldonado, running sixth and looking likely to outscore Williams’ total points of 2011, then got out of shape on the final lap while sizing up a move on Alonso and dispersed the front end of his car across the track at Turn 8. Both showed promise in the race, but both will want to convert it into points this time around.
The all-new driver lineup at Toro Rosso looked full of potential last weekend; Paul di Resta snuck in to grab a point for Force India by staying alert and pushing until the chequered flag; and Grosjean’s Lotus-Renault teammate Kimi Raikkonen was often matching the pace of race leader Button on his way to 7th. These five teams are set for a titanic midfield battle this season in the knowledge that of the ten drivers involved, there will usually only be two or three points places available.
4) Will HRT make the grid this time?
I really hope so. But in all honesty, probably not.
HRT completed very little running across free practise and qualifying last weekend, dogged by reliability and mechanical issues. Pedro de la Rosa was without DRS all weekend, and is far from happy with his power steering system. Teammate Narain Karthikeyan is more optimistic given his familiarity with the Sepang circuit, but it’s going to take more than experience from the two veteran racers to get HRT up to speed with the rest of the field.
It’s going to take miracles.
5) Three drivers who need to beat their teammates in Sepang
Kimi Raikkonen - You reckon the Iceman figured on qualifying 14 places below Grosjean in his F1 comeback? I don’t. Raikkonen showed strong race pace and has talked up his team’s chances of competing for a podium this weekend. At the minimum, the Finn will be looking to re-establish the Lotus-Renault pecking order.
Lewis Hamilton - It might sound odd to be saying this after just one race, but most of Hamilton’s issues last season were attributed – by McLaren team members, on several occasions – to a discomfort with his perception that Button was getting the better of him. The older Button has a better support group around him, is more relaxed around the circuit, and is under less pressure to perform. Hamilton looked subdued on the podium in Melbourne while his teammate celebrated, and needs a result fast to ease his concerns.
Jean-Eric Vergne - The Toro Rosso rookie ran ahead of Daniel Ricciardo for almost the entire race last weekend but a slip on the final lap allowed the Aussie to collect two world championship points while Vergne finished 11th. These two are widely believed to be in competition for Mark Webber’s Red Bull seat in the long run. Vergne needs to show more cool if he finds himself in a similar situation in Sepang.
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