Malaysian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Selamat datang ke Malaysia! The Formula 1 Championship moves to Asia for the first time in the 2014 season for the Malaysian Grand Prix held and Sepang International Circuit. The 5.543km track runs clockwise, and boasted every elements needed for an exhilarating circuit. Drivers must snake their way through the right hand hairpin of turn 1 and avoid lock-ups, before immediately turning back for the left hand hairpin of turn 2. The track then opens out into a long sweeping right hander before another series of sweeping corners in sector 2. Turn 9 however into sector 3 puts a lot of pressure on the brakes. The third sector ends with a high speed straight before the final hairpin at turn 15. Having driven this track myself*, I know just how crucial it is to get the correct line out of a corner to ensure you’ve got the speed through the winding circuit. This really is one of the best circuits on the calendar. True to form, Malaysia delivered torrential rain which saw qualifying delayed while we waited for the track to resemble less of a river. Once the session finally got underway, it was Lewis Hamilton who secured pole position for the second race in a row, ahead of team mate Nico Rosberg in P3. Sebastian Vettel found himself in P2 between the two Mercedes.

Both the Mercedes were the dominating force in qualifying, proving still to be the quickest package this season. Hamilton looked at home in the wet throughout the session, remaining firmly at the top of the time sheets. The rain persisted during qualifying, allowing for Hamilton to run the intermediate only in Q1, opting for full wets for the remainder of the afternoon. In the end it was time of 1:59.431 on full wets that secured Hamilton pole position. Nico Rosberg was equally as quick during qualifying, though deteriorating track conditions in Q3 proved difficult for the German.

Sebastian Vettel was back to his usual form, securing P2 on the grid after a rocky start due to an issue with the RB10’s energy store. Once the RB10 was reset, however, Vettel found the qualifying pace that was missing in Australia. Though the Red Bull is looking more reliable than in Australia, the RB10 isn’t quite up to scratch in terms of straight line speed, so it will be down to a downforce package to maintain position. Proving that his performance in Australia was not a fluke, Daniel Ricciardo looked at home in the RB10 and the rain. Sitting at the top end of the time sheets, the Australian was bumped down to P5 in Q3, though still in front of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, which (let’s face it) is pretty impressive on it’s own.

Ferrari are undoubtably quick around Sepang, with both Alonso and Raikkonen delivering strong performances in qualifying. Fernando Alonso, despite suffering from a disconnected front left track rod in Q2 was close to making the second row of the grid before being edged out by Rosberg to start P4. Kimi Raikkonen appeared more comfortable in the Ferrari than Australia, though still can’t quite match the pace of the Spaniard. Kimi eventually qualified P6

Nico Hulkenberg gave yet another impressive performance throughout qualifying, proving not only his talent as a driver, but the potential of the VJM07, securing P7. While team mate, Sergio Perez was not as comfortable in the track conditions. Perez couldn’t find the grip or the pace enough to follow Hulkenberg in Q3. Eventually setting a lap time of 2:02.511 for P14, more than a second than a half slower than his team mate.

McLaren, after being plagued with software issues in practice, finally managed to get both MP4-29s under control, only to opt for the wrong tyre strategies throughout qualifying. Both Magnussen and Button headed out on full wets in Q1, despite the rest of the grid opting for the intermediates, and both cars struggled with lack of grip. Luckily both the McLarens made it through to the next session. Kevin Magnussen had luck on his side after taking a very quick stroll through the gravel trap at the hairpin of turn 15, making it through to Q3 to eventually qualify in P8. Jensen Button was no luckier with his choice in tyres, though he too had a place in Q3. In the final minutes of qualifying, Button swapped his full wets for a set of intermediates, hoping to take advantage of a dry line. However, there wasn’t one. The Brit’s McLaren therefore rounds out the top ten in P10.

Jean-Eric Vergne largely avoided incident in qualifying, playing it safe and securing good lap times on the full wet tyres. The track conditions seemed to favour the Frenchman’s STR9, securing himself a place in Q3 to eventually qualify P9 with 2:03.078. Daniil Kvyat escaped penalties from the race stewards after making contact with Fernando Alonso at turn 9. Taking the inside line of the corner, Kvyat’s suffered a lock up, colliding with the Ferrari. The incident occurred before anyone had set a lap time in Q2, and saw the session momentarily red flagged. When the session resumed, Kvyat stayed in the garage, eventually coming out to wet track conditions. Determined to make it through to Q3 for the second round in a row, the Russian rookie sat on the cusp of the drop off zone, only to be pushed out by his team mate. Kvyat’s final flying lap time of 2:02.351 will see him start P11.

Esteban Gutierrez was lucky to make it through to Q2, not for any fault of his own, but the Sauber driver was dangerously close to colliding with an out of control Ericsson in the final minutes of Q1. Possibly due to the adrenaline that surely kicked in, Gutierrez put in a determined drive in the following session, setting purple sector times through the sweeping second sector. Though the Mexican didn’t make it to the final qualifying session, he did manage to get his Sauber C33 up as far as P12. Team mate, Adrian Sutil looked less comfortable in the car, and in the wet conditions. Sutil’s C33 twitched it’s way through turns 1 and 2, and only worsened as the rain picked up again, eventually qualifying P18. Though given Bottas’ penalty, will start P17.

Williams were unlucky in qualifying when taking the risk to run the intermediate tyres. The gamble didn’t pay off as the rain picked up again, with absolutely no grip, both Massa and Bottas quickly pit for full wets. Felipe Massa, desperate to make it into Q3, managed another flying lap in Q2 once on the wets but only good enough for P13. Bottas gave a decent performance in the early stages of qualifying, really putting the Fw36 through it’s paces. However, later Valtteri Bottas was handed a three place grid penalty for impeding Daniel Ricciardo earlier in the session, moving is P15 qualifying to starting P18. Williams simply ran out of time in Q2, the laps lost running the intermediates were all that was needed to see both Massa and Bottas further up the grid.

Lotus had a unfortunate qualifying as Romain Grosjean suffered a spin at the turn 15 hairpin on his final attempt to make it into Q3. The Frenchman had been on a flying lap before the E22 lost control approaching Rosberg, who was on a slow lap. Settling for a qualifying position of P16, Grosjean moves up to P15 following Bottas’ grid penalty. Pastor Maldonado qualified behind his team mate, in P17 though will start P16. Despite qualifying at the back end of the grid, the fact that the E22 made it through all three practice sessions, and the first qualifying has to be seen as progress for the team ironing out the reliability issues that have plagued them so far.

Order was restored at Marussia with Jules Bianchi qualifying in P19, ahead of team mate Max Chilton in P21. Though the Marussia is not particularly quick package compared to the rest of the field, at least they are reliable, which at the start of the 2014 season could prove to be more advantageous than speed.

For their home race, neither Caterham made it out of Q1, as we round off the back end of the grid with Kamui Kobayashi in P20, and Marcus Ericsson P22. Kobayashi’s qualifying was largely without incident. Though, Marcus Ericsson learnt the hard way that you cannot use the kerbs when the track is wet. The Caterham rookie cut the end of Q1 short after the CT05 careered off the track, hitting a barrier and then collecting a sign. Ericsson was extremely lucky not to collide with the oncoming Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez.

Strategy for today’s race is completely dependent on rain, with most likely a three stop strategy for a dry race. If the rain holds off however, the track conditions are equally as difficult, though this time for heat and keeping the cars cool. Personally, I’m hoping for a wet race to close the gap between the field and lessen the issues of over heating. Undoubtably Mercedes will be quick during the race, though I’d watch to see what Williams do with the right tyre strategy. As always, the Malaysian Grand Prix promises to be a truly unmissable race.

– Alex

* Albiet, driven a remote control RB7 around a chalk outline of the circuit in a car park.

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